The next month will offer early answers to two of the most important questions on which the November election will hinge, these analysts and some senior Kerry advisers say. First among these is whether the well-funded negative ad campaign Bush launched last week in 18 swing states can succeed in defining Kerry — who polls indicate is still a little-known public figure — in a way that will make him unacceptable to uncommitted voters.
The second question, though, is how many uncommitted voters are left in a race with an incumbent president who has left few people neutral or ambivalent. It remains unclear what effect Bush’s ads — assailing Kerry for wanting to raise taxes and for votes cutting intelligence funding — can have in such a polarized environment.
Tim Hibbitts, an independent pollster in Oregon, one of the states where Bush’s ads — as well as a Kerry response ad accusing Bush of misleading voters — are airing, said history shows that Bush’s attacks are virtually certain to weaken Kerry. “I don’t think these are intended to be some kind of knockout punch; they’re intended to chip away,” he said. If Bush strategists “can’t damage Kerry with that kind of money, they’re incompetent, and I don’t think they’re incompetent.”
While Kerry raises money to fund a more extensive advertising campaign later in the year, he will also try to establish a positive profile for himself with domestic policy pronouncements on such issues as jobs and education. Publicizing these will depend for the time being on what political operatives call “free media” — news coverage, rather than advertisements.
Using this time well before the Democratic convention in Boston in late July is critical, said Tom Freedman, a political consultant who worked closely on President Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection effort. “One thing we learned in ’96 is how vulnerable a challenger is before the convention,” said Freedman, who praised the Kerry decision to air immediate response ads. “There is no doubt the Bush folks are spending millions to try and define Kerry before he can introduce himself to lots of voters.” Washington operatives and commentators “tend to underestimate how powerful an impact those ads can have, partly because pundits aren’t seeing them every day. Real voters are.”
Bush’s critique of Kerry has had two prongs. One is a more traditional Republican attack on Democrats, for being too willing to raise taxes, and insufficiently vigilant in protecting national security. It is these themes Bush struck in his first negative ads. In public appearances by Bush, and e-mail news releases, a second line of attack has been opened: that Kerry is an equivocating, finger-in-the-wind politician who has been, as Bush recently said, “in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue.”
The “waffler” charge has an uncertain potential, according to some operatives not connected to Kerry’s campaign. By itself, the criticism is not necessarily damaging. “Most people would say that’s what politicians do,” said Democratic pollster Mark Penn, who added that a willingness to change one’s mind shows a “constructive flexibility” that is preferable to “rigidity.” The charge becomes more lethal, he said, if Bush can frame it to say, “I’m a man of principle, and you’re not.”
That is precisely what Bush has been attempting to say. But attempts to define adversaries work better in some years than others, said Mandy Grunwald, a veteran of Clinton’s 1992 “war room.” She sees the election fundamentally as a referendum about Bush. Perceptions about his record on the economy and national security, by this reckoning, will matter more than perceptions of Kerry. “It’s very hard for an incumbent to make the race about the challenger in tough times,” Grunwald said. “They can do a lot of damage, but ultimately I don’t think they change the subject of the election.”
Recent polling suggests a mixed picture on Kerry. In a Gallup poll for CNN and USA Today, 49 percent of voters said they believe Kerry is likely to change his positions for political reasons. Yet a Washington Post-ABC News poll last week found that 61 percent of voters perceive Kerry as a “strong leader.” The same poll suggested, not surprisingly, that positive and negative impressions are much deeper of the incumbent than the challenger. Nearly nine in 10 Bush backers said their support was more for Bush, rather than against Kerry. Six out of 10 Kerry backers, by contrast, said their choice was more against Bush than for Kerry. This suggests Kerry is still hazily defined in the public mind.
Steven Schier, a political analyst at Carleton College in Minnesota — another state likely to be competitive this fall — said the ads will help reveal whether the electorate is as polarized as some polls suggest. If Bush’s attempt to define Kerry “is going to work, it should work this month,” he said. “This is a good test of whether or not people are set in stone. . . . If it’s really all about Bush, you’re not going to see a lot of movement.”
That sounds about right. Ultimately, this will come down to whether the uncommitted voters believe we’re a nation at war. If they do, Bush wins rather easily. If not, it’s largely going to depend on their perception of the economy, which will probably be set in stone by Labor Day.