Wednesday, September 22, 2004

The Four Horsemen Of The Horse Race

There is a popular saying amongst the media-watchers and gadflys that the press will cover four things during campaigns, what I call the Four Horsemen of the Horse Race: scandals (pestilence), mistakes (death), attacks (war) and polls (famine) - though not necessarily in that order. So far, the media coverage for this presidential season has been comprised of a healthy dose of all four of these categories, and, predictably, sparse treatment of anything else of greater heft, substance or importance.

The many scandals have received an inordinate share of attention - the Swift Boat Veterans for Un-Truth (who continue their slander even today), the Kerry medal flap, CBS News' memogate, Bush's delinquent National Guard Service, and more recently allegations of cocaine use by Bush at Camp David. This is best understood as the politics of gossip over substance - but gossip sells and the media is increasingly concerned with maximizing profits. A pestilence attacking the ethical foundations of journalism which is spreading like a virus throughout our mainstream media.

Mistakes also have been made, though nothing as catastrophic as the infamous Dukakis tank ride. There was Kerry's choice to answer Bush's "If you knew then what you know now would you have voted to invade Iraq" query, and there was over the top fanaticism of Zell Miller at the Republican National Convention (not to mention the verbal gaffes like Bush's praise for the "love" OB-GYN's practice on their patients). The results have been more or less a wash, with nothing spelling "death" for either candidate, and not as rich a quarry as in elections past.

Attacks have been frequent, forceful and echoed repeatedly by the media spectators and regurgitators. There was Cheney's wildly irresponsible assertion that we would experience a devastating attack by al-Qaeda if Kerry were elected, unabashedly supported by Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert who on Sunday
suggested that al-Qaeda would rather Kerry win the election and that the terrorist organization might try to interfere with the process to insure such an outcome. War is hell, but even in a political contest there are lines that should never be crossed. As John McCain uttered to Bush in exasperation after the brutal treatment he received in the South Carolina primary, "Not everything is politics." McCain, of course, lost.

Kerry, by contrast, has stayed mostly above the belt in his attacks, but because of their civility, they have received far less media fanfare. His latest round of attacks may be catching on, as I discuss below, but not because they are necessarily low-blows, but rather because of their resonance with voters (and some conservative pundits ironically enough).

The last member of the dubious quartet, polls, have also claimed their disproportionate share of the ever diminutive supply of television and print space devoted to non-frivolous endeavors. Immediately after the Republican National Convention, there were a series of national polls that put Bush ahead by double digits (although contemporaneous state by state polls had the electoral college still evenly split). Recently the national polls have flattened out, with more than half a dozen portraying a dead heat, while two continue to show sizable Bush leads (which seems to suggest that the two are aberrations - in other words, if you polled the polls, it would be an even race).

These numbers have led to a great deal of doom and gloom panic among the notoriously fatalistic Democrats. Yes, the Democrats have suffered some big losses in the last 20 years (Mondale and Dukakis come to mind), but there is nothing to indicate that such pessimism is warranted in the current race. If most polls have them tied, then it appears that this election will be, as most have predicted all along, a neck and neck race down to the wire.

Which brings me to my point about the worth of poll numbers in general. I have mentioned before on more than one occasion that I do not put much credence in the polls. Like so many aspects of our society, they too are becoming an increasingly politicized process, if not tool, used for shaping and manipulating conventional wisdom. They are of little substance, and do little to nourish the discourse - a famine of analysis.

Affecting voter expectations has very real effects on elections since the attitudes of voters impacts on their behavior on election day. Potential voters tend to get disheartened if they think their cause is futile, and negative poll numbers can induce many to abandon the process altogether and skip the trip to the local polling station. Fence-sitters, albeit an increasingly endangered species these days, generally want to associate with the candidate they perceive as the eventual victor, so the front runner in the polls grows stronger on election day. Human nature dictates that most people don't rush to the side of the perceived loser, although in many cases their actions themselves fulfill the prophecy.

Understanding the power of polls, it is too real a possibility that at least some are being constructed in a way to present as pretty a picture as possible for their patronized candidate (remember 6 polls have a dead heat and two have a big Bush lead - kind of curious).

Consider the trajectory of recent polls in New Mexico:
In New Mexico, a new Mason-Dixon poll taken Sep. 15-16 puts Bush ahead 47% to 43%, compared to Zogby's Sept. 13-17 poll showing a Kerry lead of 54% to 42%. That is a 15% switch in a couple of days, far outside the [margin of error]. Clearly there are serious methodological issues here...If one pollster is mostly sampling Democrats and another is mostly sampling Republicans, the [margin of error] doesn't mean a lot.
There are other variables that may skew the results as well. Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin discussed one peculiarity with pollster John Zogby in a recent column. Their discussion centered around the fact that telephone pollsters do not call cell phones, only land lines. Since millions of Americans (mostly of younger demographics) only have cellular phones and no land lines, the results of most polls tend to skew older, which favors Bush, at the expense of younger participants, who largely favor Kerry.

Then there is the issue of potential turnout and how that reality remains undetected by many polling procedures. This election will see the highest turnout in terms of overall numbers and percentage of eligible voters of any national election in the past 30 years, and possibly beyond. The impetus for the increased turnout comes from the fact that there are many would be voters who will be drawn to the polls for the first time in their lives, and others who will return to the poll booth after long sojourns, motivated by the many crises of the day. Large numbers of these voters are from demographic groups with a historical record of apathy (such as young adults and minorities), so they are largely unrepresented in polling data. Since these demographic groups traditionally support Democratic candidates, this phenomenon could be skewing poll numbers toward Bush despite the eventual election day outcome. Either way, there will be a historic turnout, and history has shown that the more people vote, the better the prospects of the Democratic candidate.

Despite the fact that polls are notoriously unreliable, and this election has a unique character that doesn't lend itself to accurate polling, many pundits and observers have all but written off John Kerry. According to the mounting conventional wisdom, Kerry has no chance because he is trailing in many polls (even if within the margin of error). This post-mortem is recklessly premature, as the most recent polls indicate (I am aware that I undermine my skepticism in polls by relying on them, but I am using them as an example to suggest that if you do believe they are accurate, as many in the media apparently do, then the news about Kerry is better than previously reported):

As of September 22, one
electoral poll tracker had Kerry at 269, Bush at 253 and 16 up for grabs. This particular tracker combines all the polls to create a holistic picture of the combined polling data. The Kerry lead represents substantial gains in the past couple of weeks. Bush's lead under the same tracker was 116 electoral votes last week, which has since transformed into a 16 point deficit. That is a swing of 132 electoral votes in a matter of days. Whether or not you believe in polls, it is safe to say that the tide is turning in this regard, as the perceived support for Kerry, using these imperfect instruments, is beginning to surpass Bush.

So what is the reason for this Kerry surge? In a word: Iraq. The situation in Iraq continues to spiral ever out of control, and the prospects for Iraq becoming a stable, unified, pillar of democracy in the Middle East are becoming increasingly remote. Instead, the grim realities of an increased level of attacks on coalition troops and the related higher casualty counts (with the total of US deaths recently surpassing the tragic milestone of 1,000) have been creeping into the forefront of media coverage after the reprieve granted in the weeks immediately following the symbolic handover of limited "sovereignty" to the interim governing body. Despite the Bush campaign's unbridled optimism, and mantra of positivity, the facts on the ground are beginning to eclipse this message, and make the messenger look either out of touch with reality or deliberately deceptive. A spate of recent reports from well regarded non-partisan think tanks have issued bleak assessments of the situation in Iraq, and much to the President's embarrassment, his own intelligence personnel echoed those sentiments in the July National Intelligence Estimate.

The worsening scenario in Iraq, and Bush's repeated denials in the face of mounting evidence, has opened the door for Kerry, and to his credit, he is kicking it open and stomping through. As blogger publius has been reporting
here and here, Kerry has been hammering away at Bush on his perceived strength: Iraq (ala the Rove doctrine). Kerry has been focusing on the incompetence of the post-invasion planning, the stubborn refusal to admit any error in this regard and change course accordingly, and Bush's lack of forthrightness with the American people on the true nature of the insurgency and overall picture in Iraq.

Here are some choice excerpts from recent Kerry speeches (via the publius posts I cited above):

"He did not tell you that with each passing day, we're seeing more chaos, more violence, more indiscriminate killings," the senator said. "He did not tell you that with each passing week, our enemies are getting bolder - that Pentagon officials report that entire regions of Iraq are now in the hands of terrorists and extremists. He did not tell you that with each passing month, stability and security seem farther and farther away...his own intelligence officials have warned him for weeks that the mission in Iraq is in serious trouble.

You deserve a president who will not play politics with national security, who will not ignore his own intelligence, while living in a fantasy world of spin, and who will give the American people the truth about the challenge our brave men and women face on the front lines"
. . .

"Two years ago, Congress was right to give the President the authority to use force to hold Saddam Hussein accountable. This President...any President...would have needed the threat of force to act effectively. This President misused that authority. The power entrusted to the President gave him a strong hand to play in the international community. The idea was simple. We would get the weapons inspectors back in to verify whether or not Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. And we would convince the world to speak with one voice to Saddam: disarm or be disarmed.
. . .

Instead, the President rushed to war without letting the weapons inspectors finish their work. He went without a broad and deep coalition of allies. He acted without making sure our troops had enough body armor. And he plunged ahead without understanding or preparing for the consequences of the post-war. None of which I would have done.

Yet today, President Bush tells us that he would do everything all over again, the same way. How can he possibly be serious? Is he really saying that if we knew there were no imminent threat, no weapons of mass destruction, no ties to Al Qaeda, the United States should have invaded Iraq? My answer is no - because a Commander-in-Chief's first responsibility is to make a wise and responsible decision to keep America safe."

Kerry's recent strategic successes have not escaped the eye of even conservative commentators like Andrew Sullivan. Here is Sullivan in a recent column appearing in The New Republic:

At some point, this election race will tighten again, and, against the odds, it seems to me that John Kerry has finally found a way to do it. It's Iraq: not the reasons for going to war, not the relationship between Iraq and the war on terror, not the absence of promised WMDs, but the incompetence of the occupation from the fall of Baghdad onwards. This has always been the president's weak and blind spot. And the soundbites offered up on television last night showed why. Kerry was heard lambasting an occupation that seems to most observers to be coming unglued. Bush was seen again criticizing Kerry's record of inconsistency on Iraq. Advantage Kerry. Why? Because Bush has all but given up on trying to argue that things in Iraq are going fine. So he has to attack Kerry's credibility to conduct any kind of war in the region. It sounds campaigny and political, while Kerry at least is talking about a burning issue in the news every day. So, if this pans out, the debate will hinge on Bush's record in Iraq versus Kerry's longtime record in the Senate and dithering over the two years. If that's the battle, Kerry will surely gain--especially if violence in Iraq continues to swell in the next few weeks...

But the reality is unavoidable: Large swathes of Iraq have been ceded to terrorist insurgents; the multinational force is deeply unpopular in all the surveys of the general population you can read; barely a fraction of reconstruction funds has been spent; military and civilian casualties continue to rise; parts of Baghdad are not secure; the chances of national elections in January look iffy in the extreme; the White House's own internal reports are full of gloom. None of this was discussed at the Republican National Convention, and you can understand why. But the extremely rosy picture of Iraq sketched by that convention could well become a liability if the facts on the ground begin to make the commander-in-chief seem culpably out of it at best, and deceptive at worst.

The key for Kerry, then, is not to make the argument that this president is evil or a liar, as the Michael Moore left has stupidly done. And it is not to revisit the arguments for and against war in the first place. That merely traps Kerry back in the tangled rhetorical knots he tied for himself. It is to make the argument that this president is out of touch and incompetent. It's Dukakis again--competence, not ideology--but this time, with a real record of incompetence to point to.
Whether or not Kerry really is a closer, as some including me have suggested, may be too fanciful a notion to give much consideration to. Regardless, it seems he is positioning himself for an impressive final push. The polls, although of dubious value, are lining up behind him and his support is burgeoning at a crucial point in the campaign season. More importantly, though, he is finally crafting a cogent message that he can use to exploit a glaring weakness in Bush's presidency, the heel to what was once believed to be his electoral Achilles: Iraq.

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?