It seems curious that the percentages of the incumbent should rise while the percentages of the challenger have not risen much if at all. As a general proposition, you expect an incumbent's standing to change less, because voters already know much more about him than about his opponent. But that hasn't happened this time.
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My tentative explanation is this. Bush's most effective opposition this year has come not from Kerry and the Democrats but from Old Media, the New York Times and the news pages of the Washington Post, along with the broadcast networks ABC, CBS, and NBC. Old Media gave very heavy coverage to stories that tended to hurt Bushviolence in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, the false charges of Richard Clarke and Joseph Wilson, etc. And during the first eight months of the year Bush did a poor job of making his case.
Then, suddenly, that case was made with maximum effectiveness at the Republican National Convention in New Yorkby John McCain and Rudolph Giuliani, by Zell Miller and Arnold Schwarzenegger, by Laura Bush and Dick Cheney and George W. Bush himself. Bush was able to get his message out unmediated by Old Media. (Fox News Channel had more viewers during the Republican National Convention than any of the old-line broadcast networks.) The message was simple: We need this president to protect the nation. Bush muffed the chance to deliver that message effectively in the first debate. But he made up for it in the second and third debates.
Kerry helped confirm the Bush message in the debatesby saying American action had to pass a global test, by saying that Saddam Hussein's Iraq both was and was not a threat, by arguing that Saddam would "not necessarily" have remained in power if Kerry's course had been taken. He remains the man who volunteered the words "I did actually vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it." So in all the polls Bush continues to score better than Kerry on handling the war on terrorism and on handling Iraq.
Today's polls, if translated into election figures, would produce something like a 51 to 47 percent Bush win. Interestingly, those are the percentages by which Karl Rove's party-building model, William McKinley, beat William Jennings Bryan in 1896. I have a theoryI can't prove it; it's just a theorythat in these polarizing times there are low ceilings on both of our political parties. Both are unacceptable to near majorities of the voters. My theory is that the ceiling on the Democrats is about 51 or 52 percent and the ceiling on the Republicans is a little higher, about 53 or 54 percent.
The theory about the Democrats can be tested by looking at the 1996 and 2000 elections, when the Democrats were the incumbent presidential party in times of apparent peace and apparent prosperitythe best posture in which a party can run. Bill Clinton in 1996 won with 49 percent of the vote; if you add in one third of the Perot voters (they were mostly anti-Clinton that year), you get 51 percent. Al Gore in 2000 won 48 percent of the vote; if you add in two thirds of the Nader vote, you get 50 percent. Starting with 1994, Democrats have not won more than 48.5 percent of the popular vote for the House of Representatives; they did that in 1996 and won 48 percent in 1998 and 2000 and 46 percent in 2002. John Kerry, currently averaging 45 percent in today's polls, which would translate into something like 47 percent in an election, is running some distance below the ceiling, in this view.
It's not so easy to test my theory that Republicans have a 53 or 54 percent ceiling. Their best performances in the past decade have been in House elections, 52 percent in 1994 and 51 percent in 2002. George W. Bush is not running this year as an incumbent in a time of apparent peace or, in public perceptions, a time of apparent prosperity. (Actually, the economic numbers are about where they were when Bill Clinton was running for re-election in 1996, but Old Media consistently report economic news more pessimistically when Republicans hold the White House than when Democrats do.) For Bush to be ahead after the pummeling he has taken from Old Media and from the Democratic-funded 527 organizations' $60 million-plus ad runs is a considerable achievement. But of course running ahead two weeks out is not the same as winning the election. For a definitive assessment of the polls we must wait for the election results.