It's difficult when deciphering polls to ward off wishful thinking. Are young voters without land lines really a stealth bloc that's going to tip the race to Kerry? Are the likely voter numbers favoring Bush really a result of obsolete formulas for gauging commitment? Can Democrats really count on previously apathetic nonvoters? After all, as Democratic strategist James Carville famously said, "You know what they call a candidate who's counting on a lot of new voters? A loser."
But Tony Fabrizio, a Republican who served as chief pollster for Bob Dole's '96 presidential campaign, doesn't have much incentive to game the numbers to hearten anxious Democrats. And if his latest analysis is correct, the only way Bush can win will be if fewer minorities turn out this year than they did in 2000, when the stakes were far lower.
Fabrizio's latest poll of 12 battleground states shows the race dead even, with Bush getting 47.3 percent and Kerry getting 47.1. But a press release for the survey says: "[W]hen the data is weighted to reflect minority turnout based on the 2000 exit polls, Sen. Kerry leads by 3.5 percent and if minority turnout is weighted to census levels Sen. Kerry's lead expands to 5.2 percent."
"It is clear that minority turnout is a wildcard in this race and represents a huge upside for Sen. Kerry and a considerable challenge for the President's campaign," Fabrizio is quoted saying. "If one assumes minority turnout exceeds their 2000 election levels, then it appears a number of these states would tip to Sen. Kerry."
Given the enduring anger of widespread minority disenfranchisement four years ago and the massive get-out-the-vote machines being deployed in swing states, it's hard to imagine that minority turnout will be lower than it was in 2000.
Then again, there's some sobering stuff in this story. "Anything but strong turnout and overwhelming African-American support for Kerry could doom his chances," reports the St. Petersburg Times. "In 2000, record black turnout in Florida helped turn Florida into a virtual tie that took Republicans by surprise. This year, the mobilization effort is far greater, with a major focus on getting people to vote early. But for all the evidence of a heavy African-American turnout, there are hints that Kerry might not be doing as strongly as he needs to be. At a John Edwards rally in St. Petersburg on Saturday, white people held 'African-Americans for Kerry-Edwards' placards."
There are also signs that Bush has parlayed his social conservatism into increased support from black voters. The St. Petersburg Times cites a poll that it conducted with the Miami Herald, showing Bush garnering 19 percent of the black vote, nearly double what he got last year. As the story says, "That estimate is imprecise because the pollsters surveyed fewer than 100 likely black voters in Florida, and the Kerry-Edwards campaign says its internal polling never shows Bush in double digits. But it mirrors a national poll released last week showing 18 percent of African-Americans backing Bush."
That poll was an outlier, though, and the attention it's getting may just be a result of GOP wishful thinking. Democrats seem far more worried about the possibility of dirty tricks by Republicans, who know they can only hang on to the White House by suppressing the minority vote. Stories of such tactics have been rolling in for months -- there were the Florida State Police officers harassing elderly black voters in Orlando, the thousands of partisan poll-watchers who will be assigned to challenge voters in Ohio's black neighborhoods, the phone calls telling people that their polling places have been changed.
Fabrizio's findings will likely encourage Republicans to step up such tactics. If they play fair, they can't win.