A month ago, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) reported for duty at a convention designed to “introduce” him to American voters, almost entirely, as a decorated war hero ready to assume the duties of commander in chief. Mentions of his Senate record were as hard to find as Kerry at an Intelligence Committee hearing. [IMGCAP(1)]
Despite all the hype about the new “liberal patriotism,” Kerry’s convention performance earned him little more than the dubious distinction of being the first candidate to leave his convention without a bounce since George McGovern in 1972.
For months, Democrats have excused Kerry’s weak performance and high negatives in the polls by suggesting voters simply didn’t know the candidate yet, a short-term problem that the convention would solve. That serious miscalculation led the Kerry campaign to make a huge strategic error. Instead of addressing the issues behind Kerry’s negatives head-on, his flip-flops, his liberal Senate record, and his anti-defense votes, the convention introduced Kerry solely on a surface, personal level.
Most candidates leave their convention riding high on a ballot-test bounce, ready to hit the campaign trail pushing its key messages. Kerry’s inability to present a positive vision that countered his negatives and engaged the American people left an issue vacuum that the Swift boat controversy quickly filled.
This week, it’s George W. Bush’s turn. He goes to the Big Apple with Kerry dropping in the polls. In the month since the Democratic National convention, Kerry slipped 7 points in the latest Time Magazine likely voter ballot test (Aug. 24-26) and trails Bush by 2. Other polls include the Los Angeles Times ballot test (Aug. 23-25) in which Kerry slipped 4 points and now trails Bush by 2; CNN/USA Today/Gallup (Aug. 23-25), in which he’s down 3 points and now leading Bush by only 1; Fox News/Opinion Dynamics (Aug. 24-25), in which he suffered a 4 point loss with likely voters and his lead is down to 1 point.; and the NBC/Wall Street Journal (Aug. 23-25), in which Bush held his 2-point lead.
While some of the issue-handling and right track/wrong track questions still show the president has work to do, he begins his convention on an upbeat note, positively positioned by the most unlikely of sources — the Democrats themselves. Trying to minimize their own candidate’s failure to get the traditional convention bounce, Democrats have argued the electorate is so polarized that in this divided environment a convention bounce is now nearly impossible to achieve.
This argument may provide short-term cover for Kerry’s disappointing performance, but it also puts Bush in the best of positions. If he doesn’t get a bounce, well, the Kerry campaign has already explained why. If he does, it makes his achievement all the more impressive.
So, what does Bush have to do this week in New York? He needs to drive three key messages to target voter groups such as married women with children, Catholics and independents to name some.
Message One: “The war in Iraq is only one front in a larger war on terror that includes Afghanistan, protecting the homeland and working closely with our allies to improve international intelligence gathering.” Because one of Bush’s strengths has been his leadership in directing the war on terror, the Democrats have made the de-linking of the war in Iraq and the war on terror a strategic communications objective in the campaign. Bush must use this all-important venue to remind voters that they are one in the same.
Message Two: “Job creation is heading in the right direction thanks to the Bush economic policies and tax cuts.” This is a remarkable turnaround given the historic economic shock wave delivered on Sept. 11, 2001, to an economy that was already in decline when Bush took office. The country lost a million jobs in the first three months alone after the attacks on America.
Democrats want the campaign to turn on the question, “Are we better off than we were four years ago?” with no context, as if 9/11 never happened. Bush must ensure that the economic debate acknowledges the realities of the past four years and asks, “Are we in recovery and headed in the right direction?”
Message Three: Bush promised action on education reform and health care, and he delivered with No Child Left Behind and Medicare prescription drug reform. Now, he must lay out his positive agenda for the next four years, his solutions to help create more jobs, more affordable health care, more secure retirements and better schools.
Bush takes on these and other domestic challenges from an interesting position of strength.
Whether people like him or not, most believe that Bush does what he says. Kerry, on the other hand, has changed his position on so many issues — No Child Left Behind and the Patriot Act, to name two — that he enters the “vision” debate with the image of a flip-flopper. The convention offers Bush the chance to contrast the two images.
For Kerry, his convention is now nothing more than a lost opportunity. For Bush, Kerry’s failure to drive an agenda over the past month is an unexpected gift neatly boxed at the Boston convention. With the expectations of a bounce removed by the Kerry campaign, Bush can’t help but leave New York more strongly positioned for the fall battle.
David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.