The Labor Day Assessment


Labor Day ain’t what it used to be. For generations the official start of the campaign, now it is merely a milestone indicating the beginning of the end. The presidential contest has been going full-tilt for a year and a half already!

Yet with the conclusion of the Republican National Convention, we can look at the final two months and plot out the path to Nov. 2.

Our readers tend to be busy people, so we like to keep it short and to the point. Here goes:

  1. Campaigns are living organisms and they have phases of growth and decline, strength and weakness, good luck and ill fortune–sometimes with pain that is self-inflicted. There is an eerie, anthropomorphic resemblance between candidate campaigns and Mother Nature’s hurricanes, as we sit and watch Frances tear through the ultimate swing-state of Florida. Each storm is named, it has its own unique pattern of life and death, and it wanders, strengthens, and weakens over time, defying many of the flawed predictions of forecasters. After a seven-month period of difficulty for the Bush campaign, it is now the Kerry campaign’s turn.
    • The Swift Boat Vets story damaged Kerry, and his not-so-swift response throughout August hurt even more.
    • The Republican convention gave Bush a sizeable bounce, putting Kerry behind the eight-ball for the first time since he won the Iowa caucus in January.
    • The only constant in presidential politics is change, especially in the final two months, and there will be plenty of change to come, in the polls and on the campaign trail.
  2. The sizeable Bush bounce is a triumph for the president’s campaign, contradicting almost all published predictions that, like Kerry, Bush would secure little or no gain in the polls. Pardon our boast, but the Crystal Ball predicted the Bush bounce last Monday in this space. Why did we go out on that particular limb? Because the consensus Beltway wisdom is often wrong, because Bush was due some good luck, and because historically the Republicans usually put on the better, more organized show–something we have personally seen after attending part or all of 16 national conventions, eight on each side.
    • Both Time and Newsweek, covering slightly different time periods, have a Bush lead of about 11 percent, with Bush over 50 percent in both surveys, and Kerry in the low 40s. This is noteworthy, and cannot be easily dismissed. Future polls will refine the size of the bounce, of course, and the first measurements may have been exaggerated because of their timing. And, sure enough, the CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, taken post-convention Sept. 3-5, showed Bush picking up just two points among likely voters, with Kerry dropping 2 percent (or 50 percent to 47 percent for Bush pre-convention, 52 percent to 45 percent for Bush post-convention).
    • From a political perspective, it is not so much that Bush got the bounce, but that Kerry did not. This reinforces the view that the Democratic convention was poorly planned and executed, with too narrow a focus on Kerry’s Vietnam service to the exclusion of nearly everything else–such as a defense of his Senate record.
    • More disturbing for the Democrats is the possibility that Kerry himself is simply not likeable in the eyes of swing voters. If that slant on the dueling bounces is accurate, then the repair job for Kerry will be much more difficult.
  3. The Bush bounce notwithstanding, we’ll bet that by debate time, the Bush-Kerry horserace is again a near-statistical tie, or much more like the CNN/USA Today/Gallup margin than that of the Time or Newsweek poll. The real question is not whether the Bush bounce will fade, but whether it all will disappear–or whether Bush will retain a crucial few points that could easily be the difference between victory and defeat.
    • It is now clear that Bush’s nadir was reached in early August, while Democrats were pumped up after their convention, when the Swift Boat Vets had not yet emerged, and at the moment the bad jobs numbers were released, taking all the wind out of the president’s sails. At that moment, we believed that Bush needed a miracle–or a series of small miracles–to win, and lo and behold, his miracles appeared in the form of the Swift Boat Vets; Democrats loathe them but they had a considerable effect, then the GOP Convention, then reasonably good–or at least not demonstrably bad–jobs numbers in early September.
  4. The long and short at Labor Day: President Bush has at least a temporary lead thanks to his convention bounce, but this contest is still very much winnable by John Kerry. The debates–which do have an influence on the remaining undecideds and swing voters, the October jobs numbers (the last such measure before the election), developments in Iraq (including the tragic passing of the 1,000 mark in the deaths of American), the overall war on terrorism, and surprise issues (such as yet another chapter on President Bush’s National Guard service–a media-driven penance for the “sins” of the Swift Boat Vets, courtesy of “60 Minutes”) all have the potential to affect this highly competitive contest. By the way, prepare yourself for the usual “debate on debates,” as President Bush may try what President Clinton accomplished in his reelection race against Senator Dole in 1996: the reduction of the number of presidential debates from three to two. Stay tuned: Not much is certain about this critical part of the campaign yet. The campaigns have agreed to nothing. But there will be at least two debates, plus one vice-presidential debate.

Get ready for the wild, sixty-day ride to Nov. 2

It is one we are all likely to remember for the rest of our political lives. Half of our readers want Kerry to win, the other half Bush. You have about a 50 percent chance of being right with your pick, but please have a little humility about it. Nobody knows the identity of the winner with any degree of certainty as yet, because there are too many unknowns on the road to Election Day. This is one campaign book with a guaranteed surprise ending!