|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 its
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
Bushs 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 years
election around the repeated question, "Is Bush Unbeatable?" again
suggesting that Bush is next to invincible. But the latest polls suggest that Bushs
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
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 Bushs record budget deficits, now estimated to exceed $500
billion. Americans are beginning to worry that Bush was, as described by his critics, a
shallow ner-do-well whose temperament was a hazardous mix of cockiness, inexperience
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
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 electorates assessment of Bush is
growing so negative that cosmetic political adjustments wont help. With Bushs
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
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.
In 2004, however, it wont be so simple
for a Democrat to simply hold Gores 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 Bushs red states from Gores blue states.
So, today, Gores blue states plus New Hampshire would leave
a Democrat six electoral votes short. That means a Democrat will not only have to surmount
Bushs 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 Bushs 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
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.
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 Bushs 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
In the swing states in particular, given their demographics and
political leanings, Gores 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, Gores
turnout was lower than Clintons 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 Clintons 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 Doles 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 Gores embarrassment, Tennessee went against its native
son in 2000, giving Bush a four-point margin. In 2002, Tennessee elected Democrat Phil
Bredesen to the governors mansion, but the state has conversely elected Republicans
to the U.S. Senate in six straight elections by wide margins.
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 Hampshires aversion to taxes and its traditional
Republican streak hold the state in the Republican column in most statewide elections.
Republicans won back the governors 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.
Still, the Granite State has been tough on Bush candidates in the
past. Bushs 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
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
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 Gores voter turnout
was lower than Clintons. 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.
Ohios 20 electoral votes also make it the most lucrative battleground state outside
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, Bushs 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, Ohios 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 governors 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.
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
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
Then theres 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 Clintons 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 Doles support
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, Bushs brother Jeb easily put
down a challenge from Democratic hopeful Bill McBride, winning by a 56-43 margin.
Bushs victory came after the Democrats pulled out the stops to support
McBrides 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 Floridas 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. Grahams failure to out-poll Bush might be a warning signal for
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 Bushs 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.
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
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.
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 Bushs 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.