Friday, October 15, 2004
Hugh Hewitt has posited a question for his Weekend Symposium of bloggers. To wit:
Weekend Symposium 3: How deep a hole have John Kerry, Mary Beth Cahill and the Edwards dug for themselves? How lasting the damage?
The short answer from here at Section 9? Senator John F. Kerry killed any momentum he might have garnered from his performance in the first debate in Coral Gables. Now while that might not be enough to keep him out of the White House, the Massachusetts Democrat has stalled at a critical time. Kerry has placed himself in a position where it makes it harder for his Campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and its outriders in the Partisan Media to help pull ahead of Bush by November 2nd.
Allow me to explain by describing the terrain. Going in to the convention season, both campaigns were somewhat tied through July, with Kerry holding a small lead averaging between two and three points. Kerry received no bounce out of his convention, and Bush was able to pull even with Kerry by the time the former's convention in New York rolled around. Bush pulled ahead all through September, but the decisive debate season was ahead. The Partisan Media had built Bush up all through September. I remember being confident about a Bush win during that period. What I should have been paying closer attention to was the fact that in several polls, Republicans were being oversampled. Bush was posting nine to fifteen point leads in several polls. It was foolish for us to accept any of those polls at face value, and I include myself in that criticism.
The President was being set up for a huge change in storyline: the Kerry Comeback.
Like Hugh, I too believed that Bush won the University of Miami debate on substance. My take was like that of most Americans, however: Kerry had a good night for himself, and got the American people to think of him as a serious alternative to Bush. I suspect that his rise in the polls after the September 30th debate in Florida has less to do with a sea-change in opinion about Kerry than it did with the solidification of the Democratic Party around Kerry. However, what Kerry did not do, was give himself the kind of bounce that Al Gore got out of his 2000 Democratic National Convention acceptance speech. At least, not in retrospect. However, he was helped. The press declared a tie or a very small lead in several polls, itching as it was to describe a Kerry surge.
What happened over the next week was simple. Bush stabilized in the minds of the American people as his campaign opened up a barrage on John Kerry's Senate record, something the Bush people hadn't really dwelled on since the campaign began back in February. Kerry tried to take the offensive, but Bush had plenty of fodder for campaign commercials about the "Global Test" and Kerry's ambitions for a National Health Care system. I suppose he wanted to be regarded as a latter-day version of Clement Atlee. According to our friends over at CrushKerry.com, the Bush people had been lying in wait for Kerry for most of the year. Money graphs:
“October,” the operative, who asked to remain nameless, told us. “We couldn’t stay quiet all year. And if we’d been hitting him [Kerry] on his liberal record all year, it would have grown stale and lost its punch, like the flip-flop stuff has. The plan was always to barrage him with his record and brand him a Massachusetts and Washington liberal during the crucial month of October.”
So the “flip-flop” stuff was just entertaining background noise?
“That’s exactly right,” we were told. “Look, we know we can beat John Kerry on his liberal voting record. But that decision is made in finality by most voters during the closing days of an election. We needed to give people something to talk about for the past year while Kerry has tried to slash the President down with his vicious, negative attacks.”
Now, if, in the wake of the final debate, Bush starts pulling out to a four to five point pad between himself and the Senator, you can explain it by two things: the reassuring performance Bush gave in the second and third debate and Bush's concious decision to make the Senator's record an issue. But the point is, as of this moment, and certainly going into the final debate, this is a race that remains in the Senator's reach, but out of his grasp.So how did Mary Cheney get mixed up in all this?
If you can't catch your opponent, you have to find a way to bring him down to your level.
As Hugh and others have rightly pointed out, some clown in John Kerry's retinue thought it would be a neat idea to depress the evangelical vote by pointing out that Mary Cheney is a lesbian. Karl Rove had been pining for his "lost evangelicals" since 2000. Rove believed that four million of them stayed home, and a significant number of them stayed home because of the DUI story that painted Bush not as a Christian man, but as a libertine. The Kerry Campaign has to find a way to keep the evangelicals home in places like Ohio and Florida. The campaign first trotted out Edwards to use this oblique line of attack in the Cheney-Edwards debate. I don't know what response their internals told them, but they went ahead and told John Kerry to do the same thing. And he did. And it was beyond stupid.
What Mary Beth Cahill and Elizabeth Edwards said in reaction to the Cheney story was simply to add insult to injury.
Both polling and anecdotal evidence since the Tempe debate have given Hugh cause to think that the Mary Cheney gambit was a collossal mistake. Several polls have shown a small but noticable stream of undecideds and women beginning to flow towards Bush. Kerry has neither built any sort of lead nor been able to stay in a tie with the President. My thinking differs from Hugh's in that Kerry's position is recoverable, but I'm not sure how much. Kerry had to maintain the kind of momentum that would have given him a permanent lead in the last week in October. He did the opposite; he angered viewers (especially women) and stalled visibly. Watching George Stephanopolous spin for Kerry on Good Morning America the next morning was enough to tell me that the media understood that Kerry, their boy, needed help.
Kerry can still win, however. He simply didn't help himself do so in a very close race.