Democrats Have Emptied Their Six-Shooter; Now What?

Andrew E. Busch

August 1, 2004

The Democratic National Convention is over, and it is possible to survey the new election landscape.

The best that can be said about the convention from John Kerry’s point of view is that it did not seem to hurt him. Typically, candidates receive a 6-12 percentage point “bounce” from their convention, which represents an unvarnished and largely unmediated opportunity to communicate directly with the American people. Analysts were virtually unanimous in predicting that Kerry’s bounce would be toward the lower end of the historical average, because there are relatively few “persuadable” voters compared with past years.

However, virtually no one predicted what seems to have happened. The Gallup Poll, which showed George W. Bush leading John Kerry by two percentage points among likely voters before the Democratic convention, showed Bush leading Kerry by three points after the convention. Of course, the margin of error means that the effect of the convention cannot be known that precisely. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that there seems not to have been any significant bounce for Kerry.

This is, needless to say, not good news for the Senator from Massachusetts. In the modern electoral milieu, there are only three moments after the primaries when non-incumbents can expect to make big gains: the vice presidential selection, the convention, and the debates. Kerry has used up his first two and, depending on the poll, is either slightly ahead or slightly behind. Though debates often help challengers disproportionately, that may be the case this time. As a long-serving Senator, Kerry does not suffer a large “stature gap” that a debate can close. Perhaps more importantly, the convention seemed to demonstrate what many Republicans and Democrats have been saying for months: The more people see of John Kerry directly, the less they like him. A debate, in which the candidate cannot be shielded by surrogates or cleverly drawn advertisements, will not be Kerry’s silver bullet. The Republicans, on the other hand, still have their convention coming up. Like an outlaw who has wildly emptied his six-shooter in hopes of hitting something, Kerry is now nervously watching the approach of the well-armed sheriff.

There are several other indications of trouble for the Democrat. For one thing, George Bush’s approval ratings are climbing. In most polls, they are not yet above the magic 50-percent mark, but they seem headed in that direction. The economy continues generally improving, and consumer confidence is up to its highest point in three years. And, after months during which Bush has been pummeled on Iraq, it is possible that the worm is turning on that question. Several objective inquiries here and abroad have now determined that the President acted in good faith on the basis of the best information available; that Iraq did have contacts with al Qaeda; and that Saddam Hussein was, after all, trying to buy uranium in Africa. It turns out that Joseph Wilson, not George Bush, was the deceiver. CNN and the New York Times have not exactly been trumpeting this news from the housetops, but it seems to be gradually sinking in.

None of this is to say that George Bush’s reelection is clear. Republicans cannot expect a big convention bounce, either. The economy is showing some troubling signs, as well as good signs, and Bush’s new campaign mantra—”we’ve turned the corner”—leaves him especially vulnerable to any setbacks. When Jimmy Carter used that line during the 1980 Democratic primaries, the index of leading economic indicators showed a dramatic decline the very next day. Above all, events could play havoc with calculations by participants and analysts alike. Though the overall picture is improving, no one can say what will happen in Iraq over the next three months; a terrorist attack in America would have unpredictable electoral consequences. It is to say that, given the current trajectory, Kerry’s hopes of blowing the race open are fading, and that Republicans have an opportunity. We are in for a long, hard slog.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.