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The Big Elephant in the Big Apple

Presidential election history suggests several verities that might apply as the GOP convenes in New York City:

1. Incumbent presidents usually get a convention bounce that is smaller, often about half to two-thirds, of their less well-known challengers in the other party.

Since John Kerry got a bounce estimated to be a mere two points overall–once all the major nonpartisan national surveys are averaged in the two weeks following the Democratic National Convention–this “rule” would predict that George W. Bush will gain a mere one point from New York!

So why do we wonder whether history will be rewritten by the Republican Convention? It’s all just too pat and pre-packaged for our tastes. Yes, as it has been written a thousand times since Boston, there are few “undecideds” in 2004, so a bounce this year cannot be very large. This argument appears logical, but is it not also possible that Americans were not overly impressed with the Democratic conclave or with Kerry’s performance? Could it be, in retrospect, that even to untrained eyes, Kerry overdid his Vietnam service and left too many blanks about the rest of his life?

Moreover, isn’t Bush having a mild semi-revival? Just about everyone agrees that the president has been helped a bit by the Swift Boat Veterans controversy, but there is more going on just beneath the surface. After a sustained period of public opinion disaster for Bush, he is inching back up in several surveys, including the Los Angeles Times Poll and the NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll, taking a narrow lead over Kerry after weeks of being behind the Democrat. (Sure, the earlier and the current polls all show statistical ties, but it’s difficult not to pay attention when the big dogs of polling all move in the same direction at once.) It might be the public has become less enamored with John Kerry, especially on national security, and as a result, has returned–however reluctantly and/or temporarily–to George Bush.

We’re engaged in pure speculation here, but if our guess is correct, might not Bush’s small surge reinforce the natural high tide created by a party convention? The confluence of these two minor shifts could create a rare historical phenomenon: a convention bounce that is greater for the incumbent than for the challenger.

Somehow, we believe such a result would fit this strange year quite nicely–and it would continue to keep us all off balance and on our toes.

2. OK, let’s grant the wild speculation inherent in our first point. Should that push Republicans into a state of rapture?

Hardly. At best, President Bush faces an extremely difficult battle for reelection. First, as we have noted many times, no president but Truman who has done this poorly in the public polls of an election year has in the end been reelected. Could Bush be the second Truman? It’s possible, just as it is very possible he’s the second Ford (1976), Carter (1980), or Bush I (1992).

In addition, as the NBC/Wall Street Journal’s latest survey–and many others–strongly imply, the remaining undecideds are heavily female and anti-Bush, at least at this point. Unless Bush can sway them in the remaining 65 days, the undecideds are poised to break for Kerry by a substantial margin. (Note that the Bush campaign polls, we are reliably told, do not show the same profile as the public polls for the undecideds. By the Bush folks’ estimate, the few remaining undecideds are almost universally white, older, moderate or conservative, and give Bush about a 50% approval rating, with Bush and Kerry getting approximately the same ratio of favorable to unfavorable scores. With what we have on our desk at the moment, we cannot say which assessment of the undecideds is more accurate, but we hope to look more carefully at this critical group of voters in the fall.)

What might persuade those undecideds? Well, to start with, a compelling Thursday night speech by President Bush that gives a convincing defense of his first-term decisions on Iraq, the war on terror, and the economy plus lays out an attractive second-term agenda. This is quite a burden to place on a single speech, but the evening of Sept. 2 is likely to be the last time President Bush will have the undivided attention of the voting public for an extended period of time until Election Day. By contrast, the debates are shared events with a different dynamic and no teleprompter.

The dance of the moderates at Madison Square Garden (Arnold, Rudy, and McCain) will be an artistic treasure, no doubt, but it is the Bush speech that matters for Nov. 2. That’s what we’ll be watching as the next big event in the incredible election drama of 2004 plays out. Your Crystal Ball will be there, along with the known political world (sans most Democrats), and we’ll share our observations with you as the week progresses. Happy watching!