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Race Tightens, But Bush Weaknesses Remain

The latest Newsweek poll has Bush and Kerry dead-even, 48-48. I had initially been skeptical of the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that first suggested this tightening, because other surveys with similar dates did not. But with this poll and the recent CBS News/New York Times poll, that does seem to be what’s happening.

The reason for this is not mysterious. The Bush campaign has unleashed a barrage of aggressive campaign ads and surrogate attacks that have succeeded in driving up Kerry’s negatives. For example, in the Newsweek poll, Kerry's unfavorable rating has gone up from 27 percent to 36 percent. And both the Newsweek and CBS News polls have findings indicating more people think Kerry takes his positions to please voters than that he says what he believes.

Should Democrats be pressing the panic button about these developments? I don’t think so, for several reasons.

First, the Bush push-back was inevitable and it was equally inevitable they’d find some statements by Kerry to push back on. If it hadn’t been the foreign leaders and the "first I voted for it, then against it" quotes, they would have found other quotes to use. No matter what Kerry said or did not say, it would not have forestalled these attacks.

Second, running this kind of early, highly negative campaign is a sign of weakness, not strength on the part of the incumbent. If you have a decently positive record to run, this is the time you spend reminding people how great your presidency has been. But this is difficult for the Bush campaign to do, as there's little positive for them to run on. As even Bush booster David Brooks had to admit, Bush's compassionate conservative image and program are in tatters. Voters continue to be very unhappy with the economy and the job Bush has done in this department. And the messy situation in Iraq and around the world vexes Bush's ability to run on his foreign policy accomplishments.

Finally, and closely related to the previous point, recent events have tended to undercut, not improve, Bush's ability to run on his record. The messy situation in Iraq and around the world has simply become messier. The Medicare prescription drugs bill is now not only unpopular, but a scandal that further damages Bush's credibility. The economy continues to limp along. And so on.

That's why, despite making headway in the Bush-Kerry horse race, Bush's approval rating hasn't budged (flatlined at 48 percent in the Newsweek poll), his re-elect number isn't going anywhere (46 percent, about his average for the year in this poll) and voters are viewing the Republican party more, not less negatively (note that the Democrats now have a healthy 7 point lead in the generic Congressional contest).

So what should Kerry do? Pretty simple. Push back. And I agree with Josh Marshall that the best way to push back is to go after Bush's credibility. Again and again and over and over.

Failing to do that would be the real mistake here. It's almost impossible for Kerry to be too aggressive in going after Bush. Let's hope he and his campaign fully appreciate this.

Comments

Speaking of going after Bush's credibility, I am currently working with several other people on a Flash-based website on the Bush administration's economic policy/jobs record. The site isn't up yet, but will go live in early May, once we've done an initial batch of 8-10 animations. Subjects to be covered include:

1. The Bush Deficits (comparing his actual record in office with what he said on the issue shortly after taking office, making the point that tax cuts for the wealthy is how we got where we are)
2. Who got the tax cuts? (i.e. not people like you)
3. It's about JOBS, stupid! (first net loss of jobs for any presidency since the Great Depression)
4. The Bush administration's effort to reclassify fast food jobs as 'manufacturing'
5. Declining median incomes (highlighting growing income inequality)
6. The jobs situation in Ohio

Etc Etc

We also are setting up a hard money "independent expenditure" PAC ("Issues on the Internet PAC"), which will raise money to purchase Internet-based rich media advertising targeted at key swing states from the Republican convention through the election), highlighting the negative aspects of Bush's record in office.

Our organization is entirely volunteer-based -- no paid staff, no office space. Funds raised will go mainly toward online ad buys, with a bit also used for renting a dedicated server.

As an organization making "independent expenditures," we can't coordinate with the DNC or the Kerry campaign.

Our message is going to be targeted at swing voters -- people who don't detest Bush like we do, but who have their doubts about him. We aim to give people information which will reinforce and intensify those doubts. Since we're aiming at swing voters, we are going to try not to be too "shrill," and we're going to steer clear of 'social issues' entirely, since many of the people who might be won over by the economy and jobs messages may disagree with the progressive positions on social issues.

Anyway, we don't have a finished product up yet, and won't be asking for donations until we do, but I will post again when the site goes live -- which should be the weekend of May 1....

Greg

Hi Ruy,

Always enjoy your comments and website. I believe you are quite correct in reiterating that going after Bush's credibility is the best way Kerry can win this campaign.

One of the things that bothers me is the lack of more direct charges being made by the Kerry team against the Bush -team - for example, calling Bush a "flip-flopper". Using phrases like "walking contradiction" and "say one thing do another administration", in my opinion, are unlikely to leave a lasting impression on swing voters who are not in the anybody-but-Bush camp. His definition of Bush needs to be brief and succinct. The points that need to be made are that Bush is a "flip-flopper" (king of flipflops), "liar", "misleader", "exaggerator". Additionally, it needs to be pointed out that through his flipflops Bush has shown he is "unprincipled" and cannot/should not be trusted.

Bush's flip-flops are easy pickings...it took me a week to research and chronicle 84 (and counting)...here:
http://www.compassiongate.com/promises/index.htm

It can't be that hard to take that and build a systematic case in short phrases, as opposed to long speeches.

It doesn't hurt to point out that Bush is weak on battling terrorism. The evidence there is also substantial, not to mention Clarke's latest revelations.

Ruy: Your analysis is a welcome tonic in a sea of nonsense. It is always clear-headed and honest and is very much appreciated. Thanks!

I think Kerry ran a better primary campaign (in the later stages) than he has a post-primary campaign. Since Howard Dean vanished with a scream, the Kerry campaign has been plagued with the kind of foot-in-mouth-disease that virtually hands over ammunition to the GOP. The GWB ad barrage can only go so far but -- yes -- the Bush credibility issues seem to have withered from public consciousness in the light of the media "GOTCHA" and what I call the candidate up/candidate down news cycles. Plus, you add the Spain bombing that dominated the news. There is definitely a sense right now that Kerry's campaign has not been in control of the debate the past two weeks. Hopefully when he gets back from his skiing trip he'll get the campaign back on track for Democratic partisans and those of us who don't belong to a party but do have concerns and want to hear a fair evenly-matched debate. I'd give the past two weeks squarely to the Bush side...and this is when independent/swing voters start forming opinions, and Ralph Nader voters start wondering if if they should vote for Nader or for Kerry. If the new JFK's campaign continues as it has for the past two weeks Bush is in.

I agree with Joe (and with you and Josh Marshall). Kerry needs to hit back. I know it's early, but this has been a relatively bad week for the Kerry camp. I don't think anyone disputes that Bush's record provides a target rich environment. The question is, do we have some evidence that Kerry/DNC/etc. will launch a coordinated offensive, joined by a positive message. My sense is, the environment is ripe for Bush to lose. The only thing we don't know yet is whether we have someone to beat him.

You do a great job with your blog. I'm a daily visitor. Best regards.

What Kerry needs to do is begin to articulate an alternative foreign policy; alternative terrorist policy, and a clear way of handling Iraq. He must articulate policies that are a contrast to Bush's. I think a major theme should reflect an understanding of complexity that appeals to the intelligence of the electorate. He must answer the negative attempt to define him, of course. But attacking Bish and answering the negatives is only part of the task. Articulating the alternatives is also essential.

Does the Kerry campaign have a clue??

Two big mistakes in the last week.

1. Foreign leaders support me statement.

Americans, especially middle of the road voters hate "foreign influence" This statement was a disaster in everyway. Americans don't want to hear this kind of stuff and Kerry's people better get with the program. While it might sound great to people like myself, it goes nowhere in mainstream America. It sounds too "internationalist, intellectual and elitist"

2. Ski Vacation

While I have no problem with Kerry taking a vacation, skiing at a top resort with photos no less, strikes me as unbelievable. Most Americans have never tried the sport which is way too costly for most. Very few can relate to this sport. While I enjoy skiing myself, this just fits right into the Republicans plan to show Kerry as a snobbish elitist.


I hope this was just a bad week and does not continue as a trend or else were in big trouble!

Wake up Kerry staffers!!

only 7 comments, you are way behind Atrios and KOS, not to mention Bilmon

Bush's credibilty is a fat target this week.

Richard Clarke and the 9/11 hearings, watch the Bush negatives go up.

The real question is, how low will the repuglicans go ???

I agree, as do most Democratic partisans, that attacking Bush's credibility is essential. That attack must do two other things, however. First, it must connect to the issues people care about. The major ones are the war and the economy, including tax breaks for millionaires. That is: Bush said we were going to war to stop WMD's; no WMD's. Bush said his tax breaks for the wealthy would produce millions of new jobs; no jobs.

The second thing that must be done is to define the Kerry alternative. A little hard to know so far what Kerry is offering except that he is not Bush. He needs to start saying.

And I agree that the skiing trip was Dukakis-like in its miscalculation. Doesn't the guy cut brush or something?

Just a quick point about skiing.

Just about EVERYBODY who has any desire to in New England goes skiing. It is hardly an elitist sport -- there are many places where one can ski pretty much as cheaply as one would ever want.

Between skiing and golf, it's got to be golf that has a far more elitist image and reality -- and Bush gets a complete pass for when he goes golfing (unless there's something else about the timing of it that's wrong).

Re the ski trip criticism, in the wire service picture I saw, Kerry looked athletic. If we're looking to counter whatever wimpy/nerdy raps the troglodytes will try to stick him with, maybe that's not so bad for us? The real problem with the trip may have been its timing. As to whether or not it contributed to the campaign's poor week--well, it didn't seem to help.

Also, another way of looking at it is, rather than using it as evidence he and his gang have a tin ear, that he's comfortable being himself. Candidates can and do look ridiculous sometimes in just how far they sometimes go to look like "ordinary" Americans.

This Administration is *so* target-rich that it will require some seriously good judgment on the part of the Kerry people--and other independent efforts--to decide just how best to make our case.

I think David in NY's comment that the criticisms of Bush's credibility need to focus most on the issues the voters care most about is sound, common-sense advice for deciding where to put the emphasis. That might sound trite, but campaigns very often take their eyes off the ball amidst the intense, daily onslaught of what can be major distractions to sticking with a disciplined message.

Data of the sort Ruy posts should provide important clues for the independent folks to best target their efforts for maximum impact, in the absence of being able to coordinate with the Kerry campaign.

Kerry has to do a lot more than Bash Bush. He also has to paint a straightforward and positive vision for the country. He has to let Americans know who he is, what he stands for, and where he will take the country. He has not done that yet, and so BushCo is doing it for him. The upshot? Kerry's negatives have jumped dramatically.

You can't bring down your negatives by attacking the other guy. The only way to bring down your negatives and to inspire voters is to paint your vision and project your personality.

Bush already has very high negatives. Sure, we want to keep them there. And sure, there are many people who will go to the polls to vote AGAINST Bush. But there are many other people who will only go to the polls if they have something to vote FOR. John Kerry hasn't even begun talking about that.

If you go to JohnKerry.com right now, there is a statement on the one year anniversary of the Iraq war. All it talks about is George W. Bush. It's on the John Kerry web site, it's his main message, but it doesn't say anything about him. This has gotta change or Americans will respond by saying "a pox on both their houses." That's not the way to win an election.

I agree with Andrew above. While I do think it is "time to hit back", it may also be time to offer what Bush can not - that vision thing.

Make several simple pledges to the American people focus on Bush miscues/mistakes. Tell them that this is the report card they can great a President Kerry on and that you won't constantly change how an issue is evaluated, i.e. Iraq, Medicare.

I agree that Kerry needs to hit back, and I think he will. But it might not be so bad to let them throw a few punches early. Most of them don't seem to have much in the way of legs.

I see they are now shifting to hitting Kerry on spending. That should be a rich spectacle - father of the largest deficits in history crying about fiscal irresponsiblity. One thing Kerry should hit Bush hard on is his "not my fault" syndrome, like somebody else has been running the country for three years.

Kerry can't hit back without money. Donate, donate, donate. I'm putting two hundrd a month into moveon because they make better ads thatn the Kerry campaign. Also the welcome wes clark democrats website has informatio about democrats nationwide that I use to find races to give to since I live in a safe district with an uncontested democrat. Give til it hurts.

Sure Kerry needs money. But he doesn't need money to take advantage of the gift Clarke has given him. All he needs to do is make a major speech within the next day or two setting forth his plans for how he will combat terrorism and how he intends to proceed with Iraq. Does anyone doubt there would be front-page press coverage of such a speech now?