The Last Hundred Days

How the '04 campaign plays out in parallel universes


Okay, the fun and games are over. The grim reality of Campaign ’04 is fully upon us. And there are two alternative realities, two parallel universes unfolding before us–only one of which can come mainly true. Much like Superman and Bizzaro Superman they exist in conflict, but eventually one will emerge as the real thing.

Parallel Universe 1: The Kerry Mandate

Kerry has chosen well for vice president, reaping an avalanche of favorable press contrasting Vice President Cheney with his nominee, North Carolina Senator John Edwards. True, Edwards is inexperienced and superficial on the most vital matters of national security, but after the ultra-experienced Cheney’s disastrous goof on Iraq, experience has a bad name. In addition, Edwards is as cute as a bug in a rug, and the media gave him 91 percent positive coverage during the primaries according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs–the most positive coverage ever accorded any candidate since the statistics have been kept. By comparison, Cheney perpetually looks as though he is in the midst of his fifth heart attack–pasty, dull, boring, and politically inept. Thus, the prime-time exposure of John Edwards at the Democratic National Convention, all by itself, adds several points to Kerry’s favorability ratings and helps to break the statistical tie with Bush that has existed for weeks.

The Democrat has already essentially erased the GOP fundraising lead–something that few in his own party thought possible earlier in the year. The Democratic Party and the Democratic-leaning 527 committees are ready to go hard after Bush in negative TV ads during August. Moreover, the party’s convention succeeds in pushing Kerry past the first pole of presidential credibility. Democrats’ intense hatred of all things Bush, driven to a fever pitch by Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” leaves every internal party disagreement hidden in the background. Each speaker stays on message, making the most of the Bush administration’s perceived errors. Whoopi Goldberg almost ruins the show with a reprise of her special version of “Bush,” and John Mellencamp insists on singing his controversial tune about Bush–“he’s just another cheap thug that sacrifices our young”–but the media are too busy asking for autographs to notice.

The networks–FOX excluded–are almost fully on board, and commentators are particularly amused by the delegates’ frequent chant that makes fun of Cheney’s potty-mouth (plus a weak economy). Each time Bush or Cheney is mentioned from the podium, the delegates erupt in renditions of “LET THEM EAT SOAP,” while waving bars of Zest and Ivory. The week builds to a crescendo, with “THE SPEECH” on Thursday evening. Kerry knocks it out of the ballpark, smiling often without a single noticeable crack appearing in his botox-enhanced face. Enthusiastic TV anchors describe Kerry’s speech with the same creative, innovative sentence: “Kerry has given the speech of his life.” (How do they come up with these bon mots?) There is no doubt that for most Americans, the Democrat has made a fervent presidential impression, even though he barely kissed his billion-dollar wife. Most commentators choose only to make favorable comparisons to the over-the-top Gore smooch of 2000.

Kerry now vaults to a 5 to 7 percent lead in the polls–even higher in a few surveys–as Bush’s job approval ratings drift down to the deadly 40 percent or below level. Kerry, Edwards, and their party surrogates campaign hard throughout August; minimizing the build-up to Bush’s convention in New York, Aug. 30 through Sept. 2 (with an assist from the Summer Olympics in Greece). While Bush has a reasonably successful convention, it is marred by substantial media criticism throughout, holding the President’s bounce to a surprisingly tiny 2 to 3 percent. Both bounces are smaller than usual, but then how could they be large? Over 90 percent of the Americans who will actually show up at the polls in November had made up their minds by mid-summer! The number of true undecided voters was minuscule by comparison to most previous presidential elections–and as usual, those undecided voters would later break heavily against the incumbent Bush and for the challenger Kerry. (If you haven’t convinced a voter you deserve a second term in three and a half years when you dominate the stage, you are unlikely to do so in the final few months of a hot campaign when you must share the stage with your opponent.)

Amazingly, President Bush never leads or even ties another week of polling again. The campaign is all Kerry’s from July to November, with barely a blip generated by the three presidential debates. Kerry “wins” all of the debates, according to the polls, and in the one veep debate, Edwards crushes Cheney with cuteness–and a few memorable sound-bites delivered in response to Cheney’s predictable growls, though Cheney is congratulated for never cursing. Despite all the predictions of a close contest, Kerry easily tops 300 electoral votes, wins a multi-million vote popular victory, and carries in a Democratic Senate majority. (The House has a paper-thin GOP majority, giving Kerry the opportunity to construct a narrow governing coalition by adding the handful of remaining GOP moderates to his loyal Democratic caucus on his most significant agenda items.) Ralph Nader barely manages half of his 2.7 percent from the 2000 election, and he has no significant effect on the presidential results this time around.

So in the end, George W. Bush joins his father, and the other three popular-vote-losing chief executives, in the Hall of One-Term Presidents. Bush bet his presidency on Iraq, and he lost. Furious GOP leaders point to the terrible advice offered by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Tenet, et. al., and ask, “What if Bush had stopped after Afghanistan?” The answer appears obvious: Bush would have won a near-fifty-state victory, over 60 percent of the vote, and had large majorities in both houses of Congress with which to make his presidency truly historic. The Bush dynasty is over, and Jeb never bothers to run for the White House, knowing the outcome in advance.

Parallel Universe 2: The Bush Revival

It looked grim for Bush as Kerry announced his running-mate in early July. Virtually all political experts had seen the President’s fall from grace and pronounced him dead on reelection arrival; the biggest problem for the Democrats was keeping overconfidence in check. But beneath the surface, the Bush revival had already begun. The handover to Iraqi leaders on June 28 finally bore fruit in early autumn, giving Americans some hope that their nightmare in the Middle East might be ending. No one expected immediate peace, but gradually Iraq’s new governors gained control, capitalizing on their people’s weariness with insurrection and desire for stability. By October, the Iraq war was no longer a disaster unfolding on the front pages and the evening news each day. Trial preparations for Saddam Hussein also kept reminding Americans of the one universally agreed benefit of the war. The second benefit came with the mid-October capture of Osama bin Laden. Despite conspiracy claims that bin Laden had been salted away for this late-election surprise, most voters were absolutely thrilled to have yet another mass murderer in custody.

Of even greater relevance to the election, good economic news continued to flow on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. Finally, the public began to realize that the American economy was on a footing as solid as that benefiting President Clinton in his 1996 reelection race. The country’s sour mood, brought on by Iraq, had kept voters from seeing and believing the powerful recovery. But just in time for Bush’s reelection, the dark clouds of Iraq parted, and the bright sun of increasing consumer confidence, solid jobs creation, low inflation, and all the rest broke through. A more cheerful public looked back and remembered that Bush had inherited the slowdown from Clinton. They also recalled that it was 9/11, not Bush, that had further weakened the economy.

One gamble taken by Bush’s campaign also began to pay off: the late Republican National Convention. By the end of August and the beginning of September, the better situation abroad and at home created a positive climate for the convention, cheering the delegates, who matched the Democratic Convention’s chants with some of their own. (For example, whenever a speaker criticized trial lawyer John Edwards, the crowd screamed, “SO SUE ME” or “OBJECTION YOUR HONOR.”) Moreover, the GOP convention’s presence in New York City so close to the third anniversary of Sept.11 reminded the nation of the superb job Bush had done–Michael Moore notwithstanding–in helping it through one of the worst events in history. Also fortunately for Bush, no additional major acts of domestic terrorism occurred, despite many threats, in the run-up to Nov. 2.

With Iraq less of a burden and the economy widely perceived as a plus, Bush was able for the first time in all of 2004 to go on the offensive against Kerry. The President saved his best ammunition for last. Leaving aside the flip-flopping argument of the spring, Bush instead focused on his opponent’s consistently liberal record in the Senate, from weapons systems and welfare to abortion and gay rights. The silver bullet, however, was not gay marriage–as once expected–but Kerry’s strong opposition to the death penalty. At the Democratic National Convention, bowing to Kerry’s views, the party had dropped its Clinton-Gore era support of capital punishment, mentioning the ultimate sanction only for some acts of terror. Yet a large majority of Americans still embraced the death penalty for a wide variety of crimes, and Kerry had no acceptable answer for the party’s shift to the left on an old, but still relevant, issue. “An eye for an eye, but there’s no ‘I’ in Kerry” became the next-to-last slogan of Bush’s long and difficult second campaign for President. (The final slogan was based on Americans’ desire to stick with the devil they knew, to avoid changing horses in the middle of the terror war’s stream. Written personally by Dick Cheney, the slogan became the most famous bumper sticker in American campaign history: “F*** It, Let’s Stick With The President.”)

On Election Day, Bush joined Harry Truman as the only incumbents to come back in the fall and win after trailing in many polls during the spring and summer. Unlike his father, as well as Presidents Ford and Carter, he won an election despite a job approval rating that hovered near 40 percent during part of the election year. Pundits were stunned at Bush’s Truman-like comeback. But they forgot what Hotline’s editor-in-chief Chuck Todd had been preaching for months: The rules for presidential elections are different. Any senator or governor with George Bush’s summer job approval and reelect numbers would have been toast, because–except for partisans–voters don’t care enough to spend time re-thinking their decisions to oust an incumbent. But Americans know that their vote for President really matters, and they’ll re-think it repeatedly if necessary. The Bush campaign understood that many voters were disappointed in the President, but they still liked him, still wanted to give him another chance. By contrast, those same swing voters were trying their best to like the aloof Kerry–without much success. (With a moustache, wouldn’t Kerry remind you occasionally of Thomas E. Dewey?) So at long last, a President repeated Truman’s feat, which had almost happened once before, in 1976, when President Ford came from 33 points back in August to lose by only a couple percent. Odd, isn’t it? The most unpopular Presidents can make the best comebacks! Truman succeeded to the Presidency, was no FDR, had barely a quarter of the public with him for much of his first term– and won after being written off for dead. Ford hadn’t even been elected vice president, was appointed to both top offices, pardoned his corrupt predecessor, and nearly beat Jimmy Carter in the end. And now George W. Bush, who couldn’t even carry the national popular vote running against a candidate who lost his own home state in 2000, inherits Truman’s mantle. No one can make this stuff up–except the Crystal Ball. Sometimes the weakest incumbent Presidents have the greatest capacity to surprise…

To sweeten the deal, the Republicans added several seats in the Senate and, thanks to Texas redistricting and other well targeted races, quite a few in the House. It was a near-death experience for Bush, yet once more, he was born again. With fattened majorities on Capitol Hill, the President was determined not to fall into the trap sprung on Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton–all of whom, to one serious degree or another, had scandal-ridden, war-plagued, or otherwise disappointing second terms. And gee, that’s all the two-term Presidents since the 1930s…so Bush will have to beat history’s jinx again to achieve his objective!

Take your pick of scenarios. In this highly partisan era, no doubt Democrats will choose the first and Republicans the second. Your Crystal Ball is not partisan, and it is quite sure that neither alternative will come true in full.

Still, if the election were held today, John Kerry would probably win (see our Electoral Road Map). Assuming a statistical tie between Bush and Kerry, it is reasonable to assert (as we do above) that a substantial majority of undecided voters would move to the challenger’s column, having been unconvinced by President Bush over four long years to give him a second term. That has certainly been the historical pattern, and it is only common sense. More to the point for 2004, Charlie Cook of National Journal and The Cook Political Report perceptively argues that this year’s undecided voters are primed to go against Bush. The Associated Press/Ipsos surveys from January to July 2004 show that cumulatively, fully 75 percent of the undecided voters rate the country as being “seriously off on the wrong track,” while only 18 percent see the nation moving in the “right direction.” Even more damaging to Bush, by a margin of 69 to 22 percent, these undecided voters disapprove of President Bush’s job performance. (Voters as a whole are tied at 49 percent on Bush’s job rating.) Based on these dismal scores, Bush “ain’t getting many of those undecided voters,” Cook said succinctly.

We also find the Kerry “alternative universe” currently more persuasive, in that it depends on events very likely to happen: The hullabaloo over Edwards and the convention itself will likely add up to a half-dozen points to Kerry; the news media’s probable enthusiasm for the alternative to Bush is bound to help the Democrats; and the usual pattern of an incumbent’s convention failing to add as much to Bush than the unknown challenger’s convention adds to Kerry will likely hold.

By contrast, the Bush scenario requires the President to regain the good luck that has almost completely deserted him in three arenas simultaneously: the Iraq war; the war on terrorism, generally; and public perception of the economy. George W. Bush has suffered serious damage from a thousand blows, many of which have left him bleeding, not least from the 9/11 Commission (the “20/20 Hindsight” Commission) and also the betrayals of a surprising number of administration or Republican Party figures. The collapse of President Bush’s high popularity has been even more surprising than a similar phenomenon observed during his father’s term, since the current Bush had the trauma of 9/11 and an early recession in his corner. (Early recessions usually allow enough time for recovery to kick in and be recognized by the public.)

Should the worst happen for Bush in November, he and his father can commiserate that, together, they had six years of sky-high popularity, and only two years in the cellar. But those two years were the only ones that counted politically–the reelection years.