To listen to certain Democrats these days is to learn that the presidential election is all but over, apparently because John Kerry slipped behind George W. Bush in a few national polls last week. These sad doomsayers whine constantly that Kerry "isn't tough enough," when what they are really talking about are their own mental weaknesses. Much of the anger and determination displayed by liberals over the past year seems suddenly to have deflated into fear and resignation.
At such moments, a once-important Democratic functionary inevitably pipes up to get his or her name in the newspaper by attacking the party's candidate or campaign. Even if this person happens to be a thoroughly discredited figure like Tony Coelho, a washout as Al Gore's campaign manager, his remarks get ink because "it's a story" when Democrats criticize each other. What would really be a story is a Republican behaving with the same lack of discipline endemic among Democrats just now.
The liberal tendency to assume the fetal position upon hearing any bad news not only creates a damaging psychological environment for those who indulge it, but also repels undecided and independent voters who are seeking strong, confident leadership. Nobody wants to join a team that obsesses more about losing than winning.
And there is no reason to give up, regardless of any flaws in the Kerry-Edwards campaign or the Bush-Cheney convention "bounce." That bounce has fallen flat, returning the presidential race to a virtual dead heat, according to several new polls.
The new Harris Interactive/Wall Street Journal poll, completed on Sept. 13, shows Kerry with 48 percent, Bush with 47 percent and Ralph Nader with 2 percent. Those results were nearly identical to the last Harris poll, taken before the Republican Convention, when Kerry was ahead by 1 point. The most noticeable shift in this poll's results is that the 10-point lead Bush enjoyed last June is gone. More than half of the respondents think Bush "doesn't deserve to be reelected [sic]."
The most recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press shows the Bush lead falling precipitously during the past week. Between Sept. 8 and Sept. 10, Bush was ahead of Kerry by 54 to 38 among "likely voters" -- but between Sept. 11 and Sept. 14, that gap diminished to Bush 47 versus Kerry 46.
Today, the Economist released a new YouGov poll, which employs online technology developed by a British survey firm, and found Bush ahead of Kerry by a single point, 47 to 46. To the magazine's editors this represents an "impressive" result for Bush because more than 56 percent of the voters polled by YouGov say they are "dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time."
Democracy Corps, run by James Carville and Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, completed a new poll of 1,003 voters on Sept. 14, which also showed Bush one point ahead, 49 to 48 percent. Greenberg's poll includes lots of data suggesting that voters want a new direction -- and that independents, in particular, are deeply dissatisfied with Bush.
The latest survey by Investor's Business Daily and the Christian Science Monitor, completed Sept. 12, actually shows Kerry ahead by two points among registered voters and tied with Bush among "likely" voters. (For a useful discussion of this distinction and why it may not be meaningful at this stage, consult Ruy Teixeira's Donkey Rising blog, which provides smart, professional and duly skeptical analysis of media polls.)
As Gallup polling director Frank Newport said last week when Bush was riding high on a post-convention wave, the presidential election remains in flux and unpredictable.
"In all presidential elections there has been at least some movement between Gallup's Labor Day poll and the final outcome on Election Day," Newport explained. "The general tendency is toward a closing of whatever gap exists on Labor Day. Certainly, the race is close enough at this point to suggest that while it is possible that George Bush may maintain his lead or expand it, it is also quite possible that John Kerry will gain and move into the lead himself."
(Of course, placing too much confidence in horse-race polls is a mistake. In the final weeks of the 2000 election, major polls showed Bush ahead of Al Gore by three to 13 points -- and then Gore won the popular vote tally by more than 500,000.)
Aside from Newport's observation, there are other reasons for Bush to worry about voters souring permanently on him before Nov. 2. The most salient is the war in Iraq. A growing majority of people now understand that they were misled by the Bush administration, that the war is going poorly, and that the White House has no viable exit strategy. As public focus returns to the consequences of this administration's incompetence, John Kerry can still seize the opportunity to regain his lead -- if he dares.