So Close and Yet So Far

With just two weeks to go


Our title refers to two climactic realities. With just 14 days to go in this remarkable election, both candidates are close to victory, yet distant in some ways from the 270 electoral-vote finish line. Moreover, these last 14 days will seem like 14 weeks. What happens in them will determine the winner; many events will be squeezed into the days; and surprises that could be decisive may occur.

Let’s examine the possibilities:

  1. No one can any longer dispute that the debates helped John Kerry in some ways. But, a victory by a classic debater is not the same as an election triumph, since sometimes the audience can sympathize with, or root for, the less-skilled debater. If most polls are correct in suggesting that Bush has opened up a slight lead again, after the margin had closed to a tie during the debates, then we suspect that a majority of the audience did indeed rate Kerry the winner, but sympathized more with Bush in the end.

    In the greatest miscalculation of the campaign so far, the Bush team negotiated a clumsy set of rules that favored Kerry (such as the tight time limit, forcing Kerry to drop the unappealing windbag language common in those afflicted with senator-itis). Even worse, they failed to prepare the president thoroughly for them–or perhaps it was the president’s own overconfidence about his talents in the ring. At the Crystal Ball, we dissent somewhat from the conventional media wisdom that Kerry swept all three debates, and those awful, methodologically flawed “instant polls” (that hurt Bush this year, Gore in 2000). We scored the debates 1-1-1. Kerry smashed Bush in Debate One, which had a massive audience estimated at somewhere between 62 and 65 million (counting C-SPAN). Bush recovered enough to approach a draw in Debate Two, thanks to lowered expectations–and we do mean lowered. Bush finally won an encounter in Debate Three. Bush looked rested, Kerry haggard. Bush was personable; Kerry was the fact-filled Ken Jennings of this much more complicated form of “Jeopardy.” Most importantly, the post-debate spin had Kerry making a “serious gaffe”–the Mary Cheney reference. (We leave to others to debate whether it really qualifies as such, though we note that Kerry advisers have privately said they wished their candidate had not said it.) Overall, despite our balanced grading, taking each debate separately, Kerry receives a B+ and Bush a C+ for the debate series. Just as Kerry’s performance saved his campaign in the first debate–collapsing the difference between Kerry and Bush in the polls–so too did Bush’s better performance in the third debate assist him in restoring a bit of the polling gap between the president and Senator Kerry.

  2. The debates have not carried Kerry across the finish line. If anything, he may still be a bit behind in the key electoral math, and some of his campaign’s partisans are too euphoric for his own good. Just as Bush’s bunch thought the race was over in September, too many Kerry advocates think they have a clear edge now. Neither candidate has any massive lead, though Bush is perhaps ahead by several percentage points. For all we know, given the polls’ margins of error, it is possible that Kerry could win the popular vote today and Bush the electoral vote. (Gee, doesn’t this scenario sound familiar?) We are getting as repetitious as the candidates were in the debates but on Sept. 21 we warned of “the impressive efforts of many to bring down the curtain six weeks early.” We still believe this is true because…

  3. Even with just two weeks to go, there is time for a final, decisive phase of the 2004 presidential campaign. This phase may be triggered by a new critical event (a terrorist attack such as in the Spanish election last spring which was almost certainly designed to influence the election results), a scandal centered on one of the candidates, or a dozen other factors that we cannot imagine at the moment. Let’s not forget that George W. Bush led Al Gore by 3 percent to 6 percent in the concluding two weeks of the 2000 campaign–until a seemingly irrelevant scandalette (the undisclosed 1976 DUI conviction) broke on the Thursday before the Tuesday election. It became a black hole in the campaign, swallowing up most available TV light in the critical hours when the remaining undecideds were finally making up their minds. The DUI charge, and better Democratic Election Day get-out-the-vote efforts, produced the fourth president in American history to lose the popular vote.

  4. Barring a critical event that sends the undecided/persuadable voters (maybe 5 percent to 7 percent) heading mainly in one direction, producing a surprisingly large victory for Bush or Kerry, we suspect the polls have told us about all they are capable of revealing this year. One candidate may get a tick up for a few days, and then the other candidate may get his turn. Or, it may be that Bush maintains his current slight lead. We told you last week what to watch for: whether Bush’s approval rating around 50 percent or above, and whether he has a several percentage point buffer in the horse race question, which he may well need on Election Day given the Democratic lean of many of the new registrants. But the fundamental dilemma in 2004 may remain to Nov. 2 and beyond: About half the nation doesn’t want George W. Bush to have a second term, and about half doesn’t want John Kerry to have a first one. It isn’t just that we the people are polarized; so are the candidates. Bush has been one of the most conservative presidents in history, and Kerry would be one of the most liberal ones. Most Americans find themselves coming down intensely on one side or the other. But a small percentage is dissatisfied with the choice, and their late decision will matter, though less so than the mass of new registrants who will likely show up at the polls on Election Day.

  5. One of the oldest axioms in politics is finally completely true, and not just a dodge for nervous prognosticators: It all depends on who turns out! In the 1850s Abraham Lincoln, when asked how to get elected, famously advised, “Find ’em and vote ’em.” Never in this country’s modern history have both parties and so many allied interest groups taken Lincoln’s suggestion so seriously. Just about everyone has now predicted a massive turnout of at least 55 percent to 60 percent of adults. Despite early voting and easy absentee balloting, we’ll bet that, all day long on Nov. 2, we’ll see and hear reports of voters lined up around the block, of polling places running out of supplies, and inevitably, of snafus that are somewhat inevitable in a continental country when more than 115 million people cast a ballot for president. For four years we have heard the White House say that it learned the lesson of 2000, and that it was determined to make sure the GOP GOTV programs were as good as or better than the Democrats. The proof is in the election pudding, and it is highly doubtful that anyone will be able to project the winner in advance. Sic Semper Tyrannis!–the tyrants here being the pollsters, of course.

  6. Everyone is deathly afraid of another recount, perhaps in more than one state, and an election process that once again refuses to shut down on election night. These fears are completely justified, especially given the very real possibility of an extremely tight election plus the two parties’ placement of hundreds and hundreds of attorneys across the battleground states, ready to step into court at the sight of a single hanging chad. Also not to be forgotten: the decent odds of a second consecutive split decision between the popular and electoral votes. While the rules are the rules, the lack of popular backing will weaken the nextpresident at a critical moment for the country and the world. Worst of all would be both of these difficult scenarios unfolding simultaneously. However, it is worth noting that most things we fear never happen. Let’s hope so.

  7. Inevitably, coattails from this high-stakes presidential election will affect contests lower down on the ballot. In a few cases, such as the gay marriage amendments, the reverse may also be true. For now, the Republicans remain likely to hold both the House and the Senate, perhaps picking up a few seats in both chambers (though the Senate is far shakier for the GOP than the House). There are some fascinating gubernatorial battles in eleven states, but there may not be much significant net change when all the ballots are counted.

    Perhaps not with the governors races, but almost certainly with the Senate races, we expect to see much less ticket splitting than usual, or to reverse that, we expect to see a great deal of straight-ticket voting. This is because voters feel very strongly about their presidential choice this year, and we expect this added adrenaline as the voters enter the polling booth to transfer to the voters casting ballots for all or most of the nominees of their presidential party choice. If we are correct, this will give a critical advantage to the party of the presidential winner in Senate (and House) contests.

We have never heard so many people say how relieved they will be when the election is over. Partly, that’s because of the fear of terrorism, recounts, and other potential disasters. The Crystal Ball is in full agreement, praying openly in public buildings that the election will be peaceful and have a clean winner by an undisputed margin. Perhaps when we check in again with you next week, there will be some concrete signs that our prayers are being answered.