consortiumnews.com

Will the Media Let Bush Lose?
By Sam Parry
September 16, 2003

The U.S. news media may soon face a dilemma: Can pundits keep calling George W. Bush "the popular war-time president" – a favorite stock phrase – if his poll numbers sink much further? For two years, the phrase has been a media cliché for Bush often delivered with a pleasing smile from an agreeable talking head. Or it’s used like a club against some critic who is out of step with the American people.

ABC's World News Tonight used the phrase to describe Bush both when Howard Dean announced his Democratic candidacy in June and when John Kerry announced his in September. To a degree, the "popular war-time president" repetition has created a self-fulfilling reality, especially when reinforced by generally fawning news coverage, laudatory books like "The Right Man," an action-figure doll in a flight suit, and even a hero-worshipful Sept. 11 docu-drama (which put brave words into Bush’s mouth though he spent most of that awful day sitting frozen in a Florida classroom or fleeing to Louisiana and Nebraska).

Similarly, the U.S. news media has framed next year’s election around the repeated question, "Is Bush Unbeatable?" – again suggesting that Bush is next to invincible. But the latest polls suggest that Bush’s voter support is fading fast in the face of job losses, a worsening deficit and continuing violence in Iraq.

Though the poll results have varied in their details, the overall trend lines are ominous for Bush and his political advisers. The declines have tracked with the continuing death toll in Iraq more than four months after Bush donned the flight suit, landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln and posed before a banner pronouncing "Mission Accomplished."

Red Ink

The need to spend $87 billion more for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the lack of a credible exit strategy from Iraq have connected the wars with Bush’s record budget deficits, now estimated to exceed $500 billion. Americans are beginning to worry that Bush was, as described by his critics, a shallow n’er-do-well whose temperament was a hazardous mix of cockiness, inexperience and incompetence.

The polls also suggest that Election 2004 has changed from an easy political glide path toward an inevitable Bush second term to a turbulent flight that could divert to any number of unexpected destinations. While it is conceivable that Bush and his lavishly financed campaign will win the previously expected landslide, it also is possible that his campaign could encounter a political disaster unthinkable a few months ago.

Privately, some Republican strategists are discussing the possible need of a drastic mid-course correction, possibly easing Dick Cheney off the ticket to be replaced by Secretary of State Colin Powell or some other political figure who could give the Bush ticket a friendlier appearance.

But it may be that the electorate’s assessment of Bush is growing so negative that cosmetic political adjustments won’t help. With Bush’s tax cuts opening up an artery of red ink while simultaneously failing to stanch the bleeding of U.S. jobs, many Americans appear to be growing nostalgic for the up-beat economic days of the Clinton-Gore administration.

A recent Zogby poll found the electorate almost evenly split when offered a chance to re-run Election 2000 between Al Gore and George W. Bush, with Gore getting 46 percent and Bush 48 percent, a difference within the poll's margin of error. That almost half the voters still favor Gore, who has rarely been in the public eye, is not good news for Bush, especially after two years of rally-round-the-president, united-we-stand political rhetoric.

Between the gaping hole in the federal budget and the record job losses, key battleground states such as Ohio could be ripe for the picking if a Democrat can credibly describe a return to Clinton-Gore economics. Ohio, a state that Bush carried in 2000, has lost more than 160,000 factory jobs, about one-sixth of its total. Nationwide, about 2.7 million manufacturing jobs have disappeared in three years. [NYT, Sept. 13, 2003]

For now, most polls show Bush still leading a generic Democrat in the presidential race, but the numbers suggest that many Americans are looking for a Bush exit ramp.

A CBS News poll taken before Labor Day found that only 33 percent of registered voters would "probably vote" to reelect Bush while 27 percent preferred an unnamed Democrat and 36 percent were undecided. A Zogby poll in September reported that 52 percent said it's time for someone new in the White House, while 40 percent said Bush deserves a second term.

Many analysts now expect Election 2004 to be another tight race. The electoral battlefield could again be the blocs of red and blue states of Election 2000 when Gore defeated Bush in the national popular vote but lost when five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the recount in Florida giving Bush those 25 electoral votes and a narrow victory in the Electoral College.

Green Party candidate Ralph Nader also could influence the outcome of 2004 as he did in 2000. Some Democrats have noted bitterly that Bush carried New Hampshire and its four electoral votes by just 7,211 votes while Nader garnered more than 22,000 votes. That meant that if one out of three Nader voters had gone for Gore, the Democrat would have won New Hampshire and the White House by getting 271 electoral votes, a majority in the Electoral College. The Florida recount would have been irrelevant.

Looking Ahead

In 2004, however, it won’t be so simple for a Democrat to simply hold Gore’s states and pick up New Hampshire to win. The redistricting that followed the 2000 census has eroded the Democratic position by shifting seven electoral votes into Bush’s red states from Gore’s blue states.

So, today, Gore’s blue states plus New Hampshire would leave a Democrat six electoral votes short. That means a Democrat will not only have to surmount Bush’s advantages in campaign cash and friendly news media coverage, but the nominee will have to turn at least one other state that was counted among Bush’s red states three years ago.

A county-by-county analysis comparing presidential vote totals for 1996 and 2000, and factoring in other recent voting patterns, suggests the most likely Democratic targets are Florida, Ohio, West Virginia and New Hampshire. A second tier of possible pickups includes Missouri, Arkansas, Nevada, Louisiana and Arizona.

These states plus two others, Kentucky and Tennessee, were carried by Bill Clinton in 1996 and by Bush four years later. Combined, these states represent 116 electoral votes.

Of these possible Democratic pickups, five alone have enough electoral votes to put a Democrat over the top, assuming Gore's red states stay in line. Florida now has 27 electoral votes, Ohio 20, Missouri 11, Tennessee 11, and Arizona 10. The Democrats would need more than one of the other target states to secure a majority in the Electoral College. Louisiana has nine votes, Kentucky eight, Arkansas six, Nevada five, West Virginia five and New Hampshire four.

Besides the census-driven shift in electoral votes to Bush's red states, there is other encouraging news for Republicans. Based on the results in 2000, Bush was closer to picking up extra states than Gore was. Of the five states won by less than one percent in 2000, Bush only snared Florida. But he was very close in New Mexico, Wisconsin, Iowa and Oregon.

Together, these four states, representing 29 electoral votes, will be top targets for the Bush campaign. Depending on how the campaign shapes up, Bush also might look to add Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Maine, Michigan, and Washington – all states Gore won by six percent or less. If Bush holds his red states and adds these Gore states, he would win in a landslide.

Media Spin

As in 2000, the attitude of the national news media could prove decisive. A critical point that is often overlooked in assessing the 2000 election is the extent to which Bush’s campaign – with the media's help – depressed Democratic voter turnout for Gore by smearing him as untrustworthy and prone to exaggerations.

According to a post-election survey conducted by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, the top reason voters cited for not voting for Gore was his perceived exaggerations, a supposed problem that was identified by 29 percent of those surveyed. [For more on the media's handling of Campaign 2000, see Consortiumnews.com's "Protecting Bush-Cheney."]

In the swing states in particular, given their demographics and political leanings, Gore’s inability to turn out Democratic voters cost him. Out of the 721 counties in 11 states won by Clinton in 1996 but lost by Gore in 2000, Gore’s turnout was lower than Clinton’s in 442 counties.

Gore lost 354 of these 442 counties, and in total Gore lost these 442 counties by more than 760,000 votes. Had Gore simply matched Clinton’s vote total in these 442 counties, he would have won 139 additional counties. This would have been enough to give Gore Arkansas and Florida, and he would have come within just a few hundred votes of winning Louisiana and West Virginia.

By contrast, Bush succeeded in turning out the Republican base in 2000, increasing GOP vote totals in 714 out of the 721 counties in these 11 states. Bush improved over Bob Dole’s 1996 vote total by 2.7 million votes in these states.

Taken together, the 11 battleground states also present the Democrats with complicated political calculations. To start with, the states are spread across the map, from New Hampshire to Nevada and from Ohio to Florida. So there is no simple geographic formula for Democrats to address.

Another challenge for Democrats is that these swing states are either traditionally Republican or they have trended Republican in recent years. In the three national elections in the 1980s, for instance, Democrats only won West Virginia, which they did twice in 1980 and 1988.

The states also have trended Republican for different reasons, meaning no single strategic shift will suffice for the Democrats. Western states like traditionally-Democratic Nevada and traditionally-Republican Arizona represent a form of Western Conservatism where voters are skeptical of Washington, particularly as it relates to the regulation of federal lands.

With issues like strengthening environmental standards and promoting gun safety near the top of the national Democratic agenda, Democrats will be challenged to compete in these two states in 2004. Political strategists predict that these states could trend Democratic in future elections as their Hispanic populations grow. But today, they are more Goldwater-Reagan than Clinton-Gore.

On the other hand, states like Tennessee and Kentucky, once thought to be pillars of the New South and traditionally in the conservative Democratic camp, have become part of the Christian Conservative South and appear if anything to be trending more Republican with each election. Last year, for instance, the Democratic Senate challenger to incumbent Republican McConnell lost by 28 points. Bush won Kentucky by 15 points in 2000.

To Gore’s embarrassment, Tennessee went against its native son in 2000, giving Bush a four-point margin. In 2002, Tennessee elected Democrat Phil Bredesen to the governor’s mansion, but the state has conversely elected Republicans to the U.S. Senate in six straight elections by wide margins.

Deficit Conscious

In contrast to Tennessee and Kentucky, a thousand miles to the north New Hampshire finds itself tucked between liberal and mostly Democratic New England states Vermont, Massachusetts and Maine.

But New Hampshire’s aversion to taxes and its traditional Republican streak hold the state in the Republican column in most statewide elections. Republicans won back the governor’s seat in 2002, control both houses of the state legislature by better than two-to-one, and hold the two U.S. Senate seats and the two U.S. House seats.

Still, the Granite State has been tough on Bush candidates in the past. Bush’s father had to fight back stiff competition in the New Hampshire primaries of 1988 and 1992, from Robert Dole and Patrick Buchanan respectively. The younger Bush lost the New Hampshire primary to John McCain in 2000 by 19 percentage points.

Also, since New Hampshire is traditionally a fiscally conservative state, the prospect of historic and structural national deficits as far as forecasts can measure, coupled with the tough economy, could turn New Hampshire voters against Bush again.

Traditionally-Republican Ohio and traditionally-Democratic West Virginia favored Clinton in 1992 and 1996 by wide margins. But, in 2000, Bush improved GOP performance in all of the 143 counties in the two states to win both states by relatively narrow margins. Despite of the 2000 outcome, voting trends suggest that both West Virginia and Ohio should remain at the top of the target list for Democrats.

West Virginia was one of 14 states where Gore’s voter turnout was lower than Clinton’s. In fact, Gore was the first Democratic candidate since 1928 to earn fewer than 300,000 votes in West Virginia. Merely improving Democratic turnout in West Virginia could win it back in 2004.

Prospects in Ohio are potentially even better for Democrats. Ohio’s 20 electoral votes also make it the most lucrative battleground state outside of Florida.

Ohio demographics suggest it should be competitive for Democrats. The state boasts several large metropolitan areas, from Cleveland and Toledo in the north to Cincinnati in the south to the capital of Columbus in the center of the state. Based on voter turnout in the counties that comprise these metropolitan areas, Bush’s gains in the state over 1996 GOP performance were almost entirely centered in these counties. Democrats could, therefore, win Ohio back by simply focusing voter turnout efforts in these urban and suburban areas.

Also, Ohio’s traditional Republican streak is not as ideologically driven as it might seem on paper. Ohio is not like the Bible Belt of the South nor does it have the strong anti-Washington sentiments of the Rocky Mountain states. Even though Ohio Republicans control the governor’s office and both houses of the state legislature, only 19 percent of registered voters in Ohio are registered Republicans, compared with 14 percent who are registered Democrats. A surprising 66 percent of registered voters, more than 4.6 million people, are unaffiliated.

A large Democratic turnout among these unaffiliated voters, particularly in the counties comprising the major metropolitan areas of Ohio, could swing Ohio back to the Democrats. Targeting Ohio would have the added benefit of helping in Ohio border states: Michigan, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky. All will be targets for both parties in 2004.

Southern Strategies

The Mississippi River states of Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana could be in play in 2004, but probably only if Bush's fortunes continue to worsen. Bush carried these states by 3.34, 5.45, and 7.67 percent respectively in 2000.

Arkansas and Louisiana are traditionally Southern Democratic states, while Missouri is the quintessential swing state. Judging by recent elections, all three states are swing states, but with conservative streaks, particularly on social issues.

Then there’s the Sunshine State. Of the battleground states, Florida obviously stands out as the biggest prize and, given the 2000 fiasco, represents a real target for Democrats.

Historically, Florida has been a swing state and has tracked closely with the national elections. With the exception of going for George Bush I in 1992 over Clinton, Florida has gone with the winner in every election since 1960. It has also tracked closely with the national election voting trends, giving Carter a five-point margin in 1976 and Reagan a 31-point margin in 1984.

Clinton carried Florida in 1996 by just over 300,000 votes to earn a 48% to 42% margin over Dole compared with Clinton’s 49 to 41 percent margin nationwide. Though Gore improved Democratic turnout by more than 365,000 votes in 2000, Bush was able to increase GOP turnout by nearly 670,000 votes over Dole’s support from 1996.

With Nader earning 97,488 votes statewide and with Pat Buchanan scoring an unlikely 3,400 votes in heavily-Democratic Palm Beach Country due to the confusing butterfly ballot (triple the number of votes Buchanan earned in any other Florida county), the vote was close enough for Republicans in the U.S. Supreme Court to hand Florida to Bush. His artificial victory margin of 537 votes represented less than one hundredth of one percent of the total vote in the state.

While Democrats will have their eyes set on a Florida breakthrough in 2004, there is a great deal of work to do. To start with, Florida is a state that has drifted Republican over time. In 1976, 67 percent of Florida voters were registered Democrats. Today that figure is down to 42.6 percent with 38.7 percent listed as registered Republicans and 18.8 percent unaffiliated.

In the 2002 race for governor, Bush’s brother Jeb easily put down a challenge from Democratic hopeful Bill McBride, winning by a 56-43 margin. Bush’s victory came after the Democrats pulled out the stops to support McBride’s campaign, which showed early signs of threatening Bush before falling out of contention a couple of weeks before Election Day.

Early 2004 presidential polls show George Bush ahead of every Democratic candidate in the state, including Florida’s most popular elected official Bob Graham, whose presidential campaign has been struggling to gain traction outside of Florida. Graham has never lost an election in Florida and after five statewide races, two for governor in 1978 and 1982, and three for senator in 1986, 1992, and 1998, he is well known in the state. Graham’s failure to out-poll Bush might be a warning signal for Democrats.

At the same time, Florida is a diverse and rapidly growing state, which makes its politics unpredictable and volatile. Recently, solidly-Republican Cubans in South Florida have expressed dissatisfaction with Bush’s Cuba policy, which could cause Bush serious problems if the dissent grows.

Many political analysts predict that as the non-Cuban Hispanic and Caribbean populations of Florida grow, the state will shift into the Democratic column. Whether that shift will begin in 2004 is hard to say. But Democrats still have every reason to pour resources into the state.

Media Power

The bigger question relevant to the national election is whether the Republicans, with their powerful media machinery ranging from Fox News to Rush Limbaugh, can smear the Democratic nominee as effectively as it did Al Gore in 2000. There is no telling what tactics the Republicans will use to denigrate the Democratic "fresh face" in 2004. But there is no doubt Bush's supporters will try.

Already, the conservative Manchester (N.H.) Union-Leader has poked fun at former Vermont Gov. Dean for warning about the dangers of sparklers, a mocking theme that has been picked up in the national press, including the Washington Post. [Sept. 14, 2003]

As Democrats learned in the 1990s and in 2000, these "joke themes" are crucial for reaching millions of Americans who have only a modest interest in politics. One of the most effective disinformation themes about Al Gore was his supposed claim to have "invented the Internet" – a quote that was widely ridiculed by major news outlets including the New York Times but was never actually spoken by Gore.

Still, given Bush’s shaky record and his growing reputation as a sneaky politician, it is possible that it will be Bush, not the Democrat, whose credibility and character will on the line. If violence continues in Iraq and Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction don't materialize, Bush could find himself and his exaggerations on the defensive.

Much will depend on whether the national news media holds Bush accountable for his lengthening pattern of deceptions – or whether the press corps continues to present Bush to the American people as "the popular war-time president" no matter what the polls may show.

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