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Are There Dangers in Over-Analyzing the 2004 Election?

The coverage of the 2004 presidential race has been suffocating. That is both a compliment and a criticism.

On the positive side, no election has been covered so early and in such microscopic detail. If you want to learn about the candidates or follow the daily developments of the campaign, the coverage has been a dream. [IMGCAP(1)]

But there is a significant downside to the coverage: First, the media have created a false sense of urgency about the race, which has led the campaigns to bury reporters under a blizzard of e-mails, attacks, counterattacks and counterattacks of those counterattacks far earlier than necessary.

More importantly, too many of us who write and pontificate about the race are getting it wrong.

I’m not talking about a bad prediction here or there. (As readers of this column know, I’ve made a few blunders myself.) Instead, I am referring to explanations and interpretations that are amiss because of the nature of the coverage — the need to find allegedly significant news every day, or, in the case of cable, every few hours.

The other day I happened onto a TV program that featured a number of journalists, including a couple of political reporters. A considerable amount of time was spent on the kind of week Bush had just had and on how seriously Kerry had been hurt by his vacation.

Back and forth the discussion went. Bush’s “bad” week was analyzed, as was Kerry’s “bad” week the week before. We were told that Bush won one week and Kerry won a different one, and so on and so on. All of this apparently should lead us to believe that the 2004 presidential election could well turn dramatically this week or next, or at least that the developments told us something about the candidates and their chances. Poppycock.

Not only is much of this talk a waste of time, but more importantly, it reflects a misunderstanding of the current election and of what real people are doing now.

Everyone seems to agree, quite correctly I believe, that the country is both heavily polarized and evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, supporters of the president and opponents of a second Bush term. Strong partisans have been moving to one candidate or the other over the past couple of months.

That means that there are relatively few true undecideds, certainly no more than 10 percent and quite possibly as few as four or six percent of likely voters.

Given this shape of the 2004 electorate, it makes no sense to dissect weekly developments in the presidential race as if they are significantly affecting the outcome of the contest.

Most undecided voters are not paying a lot of attention to the campaigns or, for that matter, to news. And they won’t for another few months.

Just ask Democratic presidential nominee Howard Dean about the importance of daily developments in the Democratic presidential race last October and November, when he appeared to be wrapping up the nomination. Voters apparently hadn’t really started to evaluate the candidates as a potential presidential nominee.

The main reason some voters are now undecided is that politics is of only peripheral interest to them. They are almost certainly more concerned with the start of the Major League baseball season, Donald Trump’s TV show, the next American Idol or merely even the coming of spring.

During the week of March 15, “Meet the Press,” the yardstick by which weekend network public affairs shows are measured, drew 4.4 million viewers, about one-quarter of the viewers of Trump’s “The Apprentice,” which also airs on NBC. In fact, roughly the same number of people watched World Wrestling Entertainment’s “Raw” on the Spike network as watched “Meet the Press.”

Looking at the public’s priorities another way, you could add up all the viewers of “Meet the Press,” “Face the Nation,” “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” and “Fox News Sunday” and still not equal even half the viewership of “American Idol.”

Yes, some people are paying a great deal of attention to Richard Clarke’s charges against President Bush and his administration or to Senator Kerry’s snowboarding. But those people are almost certainly strong partisans and media types — just the sort of people who are not likely to change their opinion of Bush and Kerry because of Clarke’s comments.

Many undecided voters aren’t changing their views about the presidential race from week to week because they simply aren’t paying much attention to it. Those who do move from Bush to Kerry or Kerry to Bush are likely to move a couple of more times before Election Day, since they haven’t focused on the choices they will eventually make.

Real swing and undecided voters will gravitate to one candidate or the other over the next five months, but particularly around the national conventions. Some may hold out until the fall. Until then, it is wise to be skeptical about big swings in polling and about political analysis that dwells on news that is of greatest interest only to reporters, commentators, analysts and voters who are already strongly committed to one candidate or the other.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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