Back around April of this year, I decided President Bush would win re-election by a margin of about 12 points, 55% to 43% in the Popular Vote. I hadn't worked out the Electoral Margin at that time, but figured it would be pretty big, something like 350 EV or so. Since that time, I have referred back to that prediction constantly, first over at Scott Elliott's Election Projection site. I was greeted by a fair amount of skepticism, especially by the Democrats on the comments pages. When I was invited to start guest-blogging, my confidence was reflected in my articles, as I explained the reasons for my opinion, in issues discussions, but I don't know that I ever laid out exactly how I arrived at the 55-43 call.
There are a lot of opinions out there, for how the election will play out, but not that many explain their thinking. I have to admit, by the time I made my call, I was well aware of Dr. Ray Fair's model, predicting the election on the basis of economic factors with political contributing influences. It made a lot of sense, and as I dug deeper, the prevailing conditions seemed to support the theory.
Polls are, to some degree, a bit misleading, as every election goes through its twists and turns, and the voters decide whether to give the incumbent another term, or try out a new applicant; every election involves most of the voters keeping an open mind from the beginning, to the point where they decide the matter is done. Generally, Presidents running for a second term get an advantage, at least since World War 2. The only Presidents elected since then, who lost a re-election bid were Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H.W. Bush in 1992. Both of those men had modest ability, and ran against challengers of charisma, and in times of economic downturn. On the other hand, Eisenhower in 1956, Nixon in 1972, Reagan in 1984, and Clinton in 1996 not only all won their contests for re-election, the margin of their re-election was better than their initial election. So, the starting odds for Bush were 4-to-2 in his favor.
Next, was the choice John Kerry himself brought up; the election is a referendum on the incumbent. That's about half-true, the other half coming on two other points I will get to, but first, the matter of 'Dubya'.
The hard fact to start with, is that we have a lot of information on President George W. Bush. The parts he got wrong, I expected the Democrats to bring up, and the parts he got right, I expected the Republicans to emphasize. Instead, the Democrats decided to attack Bush on his strengths. I think this came from the polls, which showed the President is strong where the voters cared most, and that led to two critical developments: The predicted Democrat leaders, Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, decided not to run, probably believing the chance was too small for what it would cost and require. And the Democrats who did choose to run, ran on a platform of near-rabid ferocity. It is not a coincidence, that 2003 was filled with vitriol and venom aimed at the President; they knew they were at a serious disadvantage, if Americans continued to believe the President was honorable and had done what he promised.
When I started looking at this without emotion, I realized that President Bush enjoyed a solid core of support, which the Democrats knew they had to attack. That is, even before they could introduce their candidate to the public, the Democrats needed to bring Bush down to a level they could hope to reach. This means I need to go back to the basics of candidate support.
Conventional Wisdom seems to come in 2 dominant flavors. The first suggests that Democrats outnumber Republicans, something like 35% to 29%, with Independents taking the remaining 36%, because that's the Exit Poll number for 2000. the trouble with that claims, is that it ignores shifts in registration over the last 10 years, the emotion of the 2000 Election, and the political realignment after 9/11. The second flavor suggests there are about 40% Democrats, 40% Republicans, and 20% Independents. The problem with this second style, is that it presumes that people will vote for their candidate especially or even only because of their political lean, which is awfully inflexible, and doesn't note the many elections, where Congressional choices differ from Presidential choices. A President is often colored by his environment, and people tend to begin from a position determined by economics, his personal likeability, and the events during his term.
So, the first question is, does Dubya start above of below 40%? As much as the Democrats wanted to pretend otherwise, Bush has consistently enjoyed public support for his decisions, so I have to say he's above. The economy has improved steadily since mid-2003, when Bush's tax cuts began to take effect, a factor the Democrats could only deny for a time. The military victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with the capture of Saddam and key arrests of al Qaeda leaders, have added to Bush's virue as a national leader in a crisis. Simply put, the average American not only finds President Bush likable, he finds him credible. That should explain the campaigns, not only of the maniacal Howard Dean, but also of MoveOn.org, and Michael Moore. They would not attack, except where Bush presents a threat.
So, taking Dr. Fair's predicted numbers as a reasonable starting point, tweaking it by considering Bush's difficulties speaking clearly at times, the effect of the Democrats' attacks, the probable conclusion of such attacks, and the development of the economy and the war by the time of the election. Bush started with an effective position of about 52%.
Howard Dean lit the fuse to the Democrats' blow-up. That is, the Democrats had a real chance in December 2003, if they could convince enough people to believe there was a real crisis in leadership, and that their candidate held the solution at hand. Remember, in 198o, Carter led Reagan for most of the campaign, until Reagan convinced the public that he was up to the job. In 1992, the economy was not nearly as bad as the Democrats sold it, but Clinton was able to do enough damage to the President (assisted by Ross Perot), to get people to listen to him. That brings us to the other two factors in this election; a similar referendum on the challenger, and the hard factors of the Economy and the War against Terror.
By April of this year, the Economy was clearly in Recovery, and the War against Terror, despite heavy losses in March and April, was being won by any objective standard. I could go into those, but this is already going on rather long. The deciding measure was the rise of John Kerry. It's peculiar, but it seems that far too often, when a strong candidate runs for re-election, the man who runs against him is a particularly poor choice. Stevenson against Eisenhower was a good choice, but George McGovern in 1972, Walter Mondale in 1984, or Bob Dole in 1996? On factors like Charisma, Leadership, or a Record of Accomplishment, these guys were outclassed from the start. And John Kerry reminds me of the same sort of candidate.
John Kerry, leave aside the issues raised by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and his character during the 1970s, has absolutely no established credentials as a Leader, has accomplished nothing in two decades as a U.S. Senator, and his plans for addressing the Economy, Foreign Policy, or Terrorism are completely empty when examined below the surface. Kerry's rhetoric, a bit of bad luck for the President in the late Spring, and a reluctance by the media to announce the Economy's turn for the better, allowed Kerry to gain an advantage in the polls. The problem for Kerry was, his advantage was only going to be temporary, unless the President melted down. And after all Bush had been through, I knew that was not going to happen.
It has been noted, that the more people got to know about John Kerry, the worse he wore. Since this did not happen during the Democratic Primaries, the obvious answer has to be, that Kerry at close examination did not stand up next to President Bush. Worse for the Democrats, it never occurred to them to consider, that they had expended all their attacks from July 2003 to June 2004. The handover of sovereignty in Iraq not only marked an important accomplishment in that War, but also marked the expiration date of the Democrat's effectiveness. The events since June 28 have marked the progression from anybody's race to clear control by the President.
So, to get back to specific numbers, Bush starts with the 48% he collected in 2000. Add to that about 4% because of 9/11. I know, the Democrats have worked hard to try to keep Bush from being recognized as a good leader in crisis, or else Bush would be 20 points ahead now. They couldn't keep it quiet forever, and one reason Kerry is having such trouble in New Jersey, and has to even campaign in New York as well, is because the word is getting out.
Abu Ghraib got blamed on Bush, but that wore off. The Swift Boat scandal hurt Kerry, but he's coming back, sort of. The National Guard issue was a failed attempt by the Democrats to ambush Bush, but it backfired. In the end, it won't really change the vote, though, because by now, most of the voters have made a decision, and the only chance Kerry has, is to get people to reconsider their choice. In my opinion, that won't happen.
In my next post on this subject, I will take apart the sectors, and explain the development of the voter share.