Sabato’s Three Laws of Political Motion”

As Candidates Fall Faster than Newton's Apple


Now that John Kerry has won clear victories in Tennessee and Virginia, on top of his resounding triumphs over the weekend in Michigan, Washington State, and Maine, the junior U.S. senator from Massachusetts is the presidential nominee-presumptive of the Democratic Party. Yes, he could make a terrible gaffe, or there could be some gigantic expose from the news media, or we might see a little buyer’s remorse down the road that costs him a state or two. But it would take a lot to deny him the nomination – so much that even the remaining candidates are having a difficult time making their case without looking for all the world like yesterday’s news or a ripe target for the late-night comedy shows.

So here we are with a Bush-Kerry race, and this is what the Crystal Ball believes to be true:

Motion, Rest, and the Outside Force: BUSH IS IN REAL TROUBLE.

It’s difficult to say exactly how much trouble, but the lack of weapons of mass destruction, the continuing deaths of U.S. troops in Iraq, the shaky and relatively jobless recovery, and all the rest of the president’s ills have put this Bush behind the eight-ball going into his reelection year – not unlike the last Bush. There is no question that Bush has been hurt both by the unremitting pounding of the pack of Democratic presidential candidates AND the highly negative recent coverage by the press (eager to even things up for the fall and nudge the contest into the competitive category). But the problems are real, and so is Bush’s trouble. That was not a confident Chief Executive we saw on “Meet the Press” last Sunday; it was a president clearly on the defensive about serious matters, both foreign and domestic.

Political Force equals Popular Mass times Electoral Acceleration: KERRY WOULD DEFEAT BUSH IF THE ELECTION WERE HELD NOW.

It’s not just the slew of national polls showing Kerry ahead. Look at our old Crystal Ball friend, the Electoral College map ( Our soundings suggest that the 2000 Blue-and-Red pattern is re-emerging, but with a few strategic gains for the Democrats, such as Arkansas, Ohio, and West Virginia. When added to Gore’s 2000 states, this gives Kerry a winning 295 electoral votes. Also, if Kerry chooses wisely for vice president, he can add the votes of a usually Republican state. The best bet here would NOT be John Edwards, who would probably lose North Carolina for the ticket, but Senator Evan Bayh – a Democrat so popular he would likely bring normally GOP-tilting Indiana into the “D” column.

Plenty of Time for an Equal and Opposite Reaction: THE ELECTION IS NOT NOW; IT IS NOV. 2.

This is the most important of the three, because it is the only one we know for sure. Given the fact that the economy just hasn’t recovered as strongly as the Bush administration had counted upon (just like Dad, again), and given the turmoil abroad that is likely to continue for a long time to come, the 2004 election is a good bet to be a close, competitive one. Bush will have no 1972 or 1984 – easy presidential reelections – but his fate is not decided. We would bet that the lead changes hands several times during the course of 2004. Yet the ironies for Bush abound.


Suppose this business-friendly administration is beaten because business won’t hire enough Americans, even though the economy and the corporate bottom-line are moving smartly upward.


Could it really be that history is repeating itself, that both Presidents Bush had and have the same bad luck with respect to the economic cycle? Presidents 41 and 43 were the recipients of dozens of upbeat economic reports from their advisers. The reports always said the same thing: Prosperity is just around the corner. And they were right. For George Herbert Walker Bush, the economy boomed just in time to ensure the reelection of the president. But it was the wrong president – Bill Clinton in 1996. For George Walker Bush, having the recession early in his term appeared to be much better timing. Except the long party of excess in the 1990s has now led to a long period of pain and economic dislocation.


Perhaps the president who thought that a tax-cut refreshed economy, plus big victories in the national security arena, would be his strong suit in 2004 will now have to rely on hot-button value issues like gay marriage to get reelected. If so, expect a nasty battle with lots of fouls on both sides.

The controversy about Bush’s military record, which in and of itself will affect few votes, is a sign of what’s to come. Remembering the elder Bush’s de-boning of the Bay State’s Michael Dukakis in 1988, Democratic leaders are already lunging for the GOP jugular to get a head-start in a game of negative one-upmanship. This guarantees that the natural Rovian instinct for tough politics will be whetted and unshackled fully. Circumstances and events are moving the campaign in the Democrat’s direction for now, yet Kerry is very vulnerable ideologically. It is simply undeniable that his voting record is quite liberal, well to the left of the American mainstream. (See, for example, the highly respected, nonpartisan congressional rankings of National Journal, which over the years have placed Senator Kerry near the top of the liberal scale in most policy areas.) The gay marriage decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Court is a godsend to the GOP, too, because it emphasizes Kerry’s vote – one of only 14 in the Senate – against the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, a bill signed by none other than President Clinton.

President Bush’s plate is full of problems, already seen and noted. Democratic nominee Kerry has a plate-full, too, and Americans will find out about all of them over the next nine months. Given the highly negative campaign that is likely on the way, courtesy of both sides, Americans may well get to know Bush and Kerry’s weaknesses too thoroughly for a settled stomach and soothed nerves. Squeamish citizens should thus be warned: This may be the year to reduce your media consumption!


John Kerry is now 12 for 14 in the binding contests held since Iowa in mid-January. As late as December, not only did very few believe that anyone running (including “frontrunner” Howard Dean) could do this well, but nearly all expected John Kerry out of the picture entirely by now. What a little Iowa magic can do for a candidate!

Howard Dean and John Edwards, as well as minor contenders Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich, are free to run as long as they want. The Crystal Ball encourages them to run all the way to the convention, and maybe beyond! After all, we feed off of chaos. Let’s hope that there are no more Wesley Clarks, dropping out simply because he cannot win!


So that’s our bias. The Democratic Party’s interests are quite different, of course. It wants a united party, a healthy and strong nominee, and an enthused base. Oddly, this calls for two different scenarios as we move on to Wisconsin (Feb. 17) and the March 2 super-primary. Maybe it’s a good thing for John Kerry to be in the headlines every few days with big type noting another smashing victory. That would argue for his opponents to stay in, because at this point they are unlikely to win much. On the other hand, the primary process has worked out so well for the Democrats AND for John Kerry that they might want to quit while they are ahead. The contest could get vicious; buyer’s remorse among Democratic voters could set in; Kerry could drain his resources and his health unnecessarily; and so forth. It will be fascinating to see which path the party and its candidates now take.


As for the losers, their money is bound to dry up relatively soon. They are all bloodied and badly beaten, and they don’t want to become modern-day Harold Stassens. John Edwards has a shot at the Veep nomination, and the others may want to live and fight another day in other capacities. This requires saying goodbye sooner rather than later. Keep in mind that, within a short period, the also-rans will become campaign curiosities, the political equivalent of trees falling in the forest with no TV cameras to record the action. Dropping out quickly, however, assumes they and their staffs are rational. Like people who have suffered a death in the family, they need time to work their way through the multiple stages of grief over the loss of their long-gestating White House dreams. Many observers follow only the champion, but the Crystal Ball has long been intrigued by the more complicated psychology of losing. We will see this played out on a grand stage in the coming days and weeks.