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What’s in a Number? 10 Statistics That All Politicos Should Heed

Every campaign is a unique concoction of issues, people and numbers. Some campaign numbers like the MPG rating of the Heinz-Kerry family SUV, have a fairly short half-life. But other numbers are likely to impact the outcome in very direct ways.

Here are the top 10 numbers that will matter in the 2004 presidential campaign. [IMGCAP(1)]

No. 10: Amount of money the campaigns spend on cable ads.

One of the most interesting political trends of the past few years is the rising importance of cable news. So, it’s not surprising that more and more voters say they turn to cable or satellite channels for their political news.

A recent Pew poll asked Americans how they learned about candidates and campaigns. Cable news networks beat the nightly network news by a margin of 38 percent to 35 percent. In 2000, the networks had a 45 percent to 34 percent lead. This change has huge implications for campaign coverage and for the placement of campaign advertising dollars, so watch the spending on cable and satellite channels.

No. 9: The percentage of the electorate actually in play.

With the Democrat and Republican bases solidly behind their party’s standard bearer, the size of the middle — those who have yet to make up their minds — is a crucial number.

My own calculations put the “Big Middle” at 29 percent. Pew and a CNN poll found similar numbers, belying the conventional political wisdom that the country is evenly divided. Millions of votes — big numbers — are still in play.

No. 8: The favorable/unfavorable rating of the No Child Left Behind Act.

When it comes to education, President Bush has made huge inroads on what has traditionally been one of the Democrats’ strongest issues. Although Sens. John Kerry and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) have been trying to make headway on the issue, in most polls Bush’s education reform legislation gets positive marks from a majority of Americans, especially those with children.

No. 7: How many seniors enroll in the new Prescription Drug Card program.

Selling seniors on the merits of the Medicare reform bill and signing them up is one of the administration’s biggest domestic challenges. The number of seniors who have cards in their wallets by Election Day will be an indicator of their success.

No. 6: The number of casualties in Iraq.

While the number of service men and women killed in fighting in Iraq has been relatively low in comparison to previous military conflicts, violence has been increasing over the past two months. To the extent that casualties are portrayed as representative of the state of the war in Iraq, this count becomes important.

No. 5: John Kerry’s favorable/unfavorable ratings.

One of the driving factors behind all ballot tests is the challenger’s ratio of favorable and unfavorable ratings. Both during and after the Democratic primary season, Kerry spent most of his time and money attacking Bush — which left many voters wondering what Kerry himself is all about.

So while the ballot test has trended slightly in Bush’s direction over the past few weeks, Kerry’s negatives have risen substantially — from 60 percent-26 percent in February to 54 percent-37 percent (CNN/USA Today/Gallup April 16-18). Those are numbers he should watch.

No. 4: How Americans view the direction of their country.

Traditionally, right track/wrong track numbers are good predictors of voter behavior. Bush’s 42 percent-57 percent right track/wrong track (Washington Post, April 16-18) is currently his most worrisome number. Still, to put this in perspective, his father’s right-track numbers on the eve of his 1992 defeat actually dipped into the teens (17 percent-75 percent, Los Angeles Times Oct. 2-5, 1992).

Also remember: These numbers have a tendency to turn around quickly. George W. Bush’s right track spike into the mid-50s — seen in surveys taken right after the capture of Saddam Hussein — suggests just how fast events can change this number.

No. 3: Bush’s job approval.

Predictably, Bush’s job approval has fallen from the mid-60s he earned early on in the war in Iraq. But again, numbers need context. In the month before the 1996 election, Bill Clinton’s job approval averaged 56 percent, and he went on to crush former Sen. Bob Dole just weeks later. His father’s job approval in the weeks before his electoral defeat was only 36 percent (CBS/New York Times Oct. 31-Nov. 2, 1992).

Today, despite a month of bad news from Iraq and a pounding by Democrats, Bush’s job approval remains in the low 50s, with a slight upward trend. Keeping that number in perspective will be important in judging his strength and resilience in the next few months.

No. 2: The number of jobs created in the year before the election.

In October 1982, unemployment hit 10 percent, and Republicans lost 26 seats in the House. Ten years later, George H.W. Bush lost his re-election bid as unemployment rose to 7.5 percent (though federal officials later revised this to 7.6 percent). For this year’s election, Democrats have smartly changed the measurement that matters. Instead of crafting attacks on the basis of the unemployment rate, which at 5.7 percent today is lower than the average during the 1990s, they have zeroed in on job creation, an indicator that always lags behind growth.

Now that the economy has come roaring back — 759,000 jobs created since last September — the question is how many jobs will be created by this October. If this trend continues, Democrats stand to lose a key issue.

No. 1: 9/11.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks elevated foreign affairs and defense from lower-tier status, tripling as an issue of major concern to voters from 5 percent before the attacks to 15 percent-20 percent now.

The attacks on America also pushed traditional values — family, faith and a rejection of moral relativism — to the fore. The attacks also led many Americans to crave solutions rather than partisan bickering. When Democrats ignored that change in voter psyche in the 2002 election — failing to pass a prescription drug benefit for seniors, for example — it cost them the Senate. The changed electorate has created a new and different dynamic for the 2004 campaign that so far benefits Bush.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.

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