While national polls found that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D) “won” the first presidential debate of 2004, those same surveys delivered other pieces of good news to both Kerry and President Bush. [IMGCAP(1)]
Kerry, who was clearly poised and articulate in his Thursday-evening debate in Florida, has gained on the president in all public surveys — an important shot in the arm to loyalists who were starting to feel as if their man was headed for certain defeat.
Instead of trailing by 3-6 points nationally, the Senator is either even or down by a point or two. Bush’s lead has evaporated and his momentum has disappeared.
The Massachusetts Democrat is now widely seen as more “presidential” than he had been, and more voters regard him as capable of dealing with dangerous international problems, including terrorism.
Voters also see Kerry as more likable than they once did (though not nearly as likable as Bush), which is a considerable asset among late-deciders, for whom personality and style are often crucially important.
But the news is not all bad for the president. He continues to lead on the important questions of the day — the war against terrorism and the war in Iraq (which may or may not be the same thing, depending on your partisanship and your view of Bush). And voters still see the president as more consistent.
In addition, the polling suggests that Bush’s supporters are more loyal to him than Kerry’s supporters are to the Senator. That has allowed the president to absorb the fallout from a mediocre first debate without imploding entirely.
But Friday night’s debate is obviously crucial for Bush. Another weak performance could begin to shake loose a few of those strongly committed backers, creating a sense of defeat among Republicans that could drain their enthusiasm and their turnout.
Vice President Cheney’s solid performance against Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) in the vice presidential debate may well have stopped Bush’s bleeding, but only the president can regain his own momentum in the race.
Voters don’t expect Bush to sound poetic, but they do expect him to look and sound poised, confident and knowledgeable during the debates. The president cannot afford to go into Election Day tied with Kerry or behind by even a point or two — not with more Americans saying the country is headed on the wrong track than say it is headed in the right direction. For Bush, running even is running behind.
I am not arguing that Bush needs to be above 50 percent of the vote in a head-to-head test with Kerry. But the president probably needs to have a couple-point edge to survive the expected Democratic boost from voter-registration efforts and the decisions of late-deciders.
So far, the presidential contest has turned three times.
The first reversal occurred late in 2003 and during the first few weeks of 2004, when, to my surprise, Democratic voters (first in Iowa but then elsewhere) switched from former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean to Kerry. The Democratic Senator not only won his party’s nomination but was also coronated by some (including pollster John Zogby) as the next president of the United States.
The second reversal occurred during the second half of August and the beginning of September, when voters moved away from Kerry and toward Bush. Bush’s solid lead made him the clear favorite, tossing some Democrats into premature depression.
The third turn occurred on Sept. 30, when Kerry bested Bush at the first debate and polls showed the race moved from a clear Bush advantage to a tossup general election.
The question now is whether there will be another turn or two in the remaining few weeks of the campaign.
In June, I wrote that I expected a Bush surge. It happened in August. Then in early September, I predicted a Kerry surge. It happened a couple of weeks later (at least to the extent that the dynamics of the race changed after the first presidential debate). But as readers of this column note, I said I had no reason to make such predictions except for the normal ebb and flow of campaigns.
Now, though, less than a month before Election Day, it’s impossible to know whether there will be more surges that change the fundamental standing of the candidates.
I’m inclined to argue that we are likely to head into Election Day with Bush and Kerry even or separated by no more than a couple of points — a reflection of the country’s fundamental divisions and the fact that both nominees have both considerable assets and real weaknesses.
But given the unexpected twists and turns of this contest, it’s probably wiser simply to wait until Nov. 2 to see what will happen.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report (www.rothenbergpoliticalreport.com).