It’s not over til it’s over

During the Democratic convention, it was reported that Democratic insiders had concluded from polling data that the election was Kerry’s to lose. More ominously, some respected non-Democratic analysts, such as Charlie Cook, were suggesting the same thing. Today, William Saletan of Slate explains why he thinks Bush’s poll numbers are “grim.” If you couple Saletan’s analysis with data showing that undecided voters tilt against Bush on key issues, you have the case that the president is in big trouble.
I see it a little differently. Even assuming that the polls showing Bush behind, and stuck at about 46 percent, are accurate, I believe that there are many more undecided voters out there than the polls suggest, and that Bush has a better shot at these voters than the polling pros believe. As to the first point, I submit that, whatever they tell pollsters, many voters don’t make up their minds until after the debates and, indeed, just before the election. Many times, polls reveal significant fluctuations in the final week or two of the campaign, and in 2000 a major last minute shift occurred almost undetected by the pollsters. Thus, I am skeptical of the theory that nearly everyone has mind up their mind, leaving only a small group of voters, with mostly anti-Bush sentiments, for the president to woo. Looked at another way, if the polls are correct that Bush is running essentially even on approval/disapproval, and if those who say they are undecided as between Bush and Kerry mostly disapprove of Bush, then the polls may well be understating the support Bush is likely to pick up among those who say they are “decided.”
This leads to my second point — history shows that candidates from the party in power tend to close well. Al Gore is only the latest example. Hubert Humphrey and Gerald Ford both nearly made up huge gaps in the last week of their campaigns. The first George Bush seemed to be making a run until the special prosecutor lowered the boom. Even Jimmy Carter made a mini-run as voters must have had doubts about Ronald Reagan, until they thought again and recoiled from Carter. This phenomenon stands to reason. As election day looms, voters naturally think much harder about whether they really want to change horses. And that can be bad news for challengers who don’t have a fairly commanding lead. Accordingly, I think Kerry would need a larger lead than the one he has (or may have) before one could conclude that the election is his to lose.

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