Where President Bush Needs to Be

I received this very helpful bit of advice for the Bush team–oddly–from the Kerry campaign.

From: Mark Mellman, Senior Strategist
Re: Where Bush-Cheney Needs To Be
Date: August 24, 2004

As a senior strategist for John Kerry, I have prepared this update for the campaign’s most active supporters as we enter the crucial weeks ahead. It’s clear that your support has put this campaign in such a strong position as we enter a critical period. Your hard work, activism, and contributions have allowed our campaign to match the Bush campaign on the airwaves and on the ground. I can report that all you’ve done is now paying off when it counts the most.


By any standard, President Bush heads into his convention in a very weak position. His current position stems from the fact that voters judge the incumbent on his performance and on the state of the nation. By this measure, the president is in grave difficulty. To be counted a success, the Republican convention must fundamentally alter public attitudes on President Bush’s stewardship of the country.

Interesting strategy, indeed. This is the opposite of the Bear Bryant “poor mouth” strategy. Talk down the opponent and lower expectations? And why does the Republican Convention have to “fundamentally alter public attitudes” when the Democratic Convention had essentially no impact whatever?

There are some basic benchmarks by which an incumbent’s success can be measured as the campaign heads into the fall:

* The average winning incumbent has had a job approval rating of 60%. Indeed, every incumbent who has won reelection has had his job approval in the mid-50’s or higher at this point. In recent polling, Bush’s average approval rating has been 48%. President Bush must emerge from his convention having dramatically altered public perception of his performance in office.
* In recent years, when incumbents have gone on to victory, 52% of voters, on average, said the country was on the right track. Now, just 37% think things are moving in the right direction. Thus, President Bush must convince the electorate that the nation is in much better shape than voters now believe to be the case.
* Every incumbent who has gone on to be reelected has had a double-digit lead at this point.

These would seem to be good signs for your candidate then, no? How far back are these numbers going, though? How do Bush’s current numbers compare to Bill Clinton’s in 1996, for example?

* Following their conventions, the average elected incumbent has held a 16-point lead, while winning incumbents have led by an average of 27 points. Bush will need a very substantial bounce to reach the mark set by his successful predecessors.
* Incumbents have enjoyed an average bounce in the vote margin of 8 points.
* On average, incumbents’ share of the two-party vote has declined by 4 points between their convention and Election Day.

Obviously, a bounce that high is an idiotic expectation in the current milieu. Wouldn’t a four or five point bounce by impressive in comparison with the DNC? Especially given that we’ve got a basic tie right now?

President Bush has the opportunity to achieve an average, or even greater, bounce from his convention.

No, he doesn’t. Do you really think most people on your mailing list are idiots?

Typically, elected incumbents go into their conventions with a 9-point lead, while incumbents who have gone on to win enter their conventions with a 21-point lead. Most current polls show the race quite close. This gives the president substantial room to bounce. By contrast, Senator Kerry entered his convention in a far stronger position than the average challenger. The average challenger goes into his convention 16 points behind, while Senator Kerry entered his convention with a 1-2 point lead. This gave Senator Kerry much less room to bounce.

Well, yes, in the sense that starting from, say, a base of 40% yields a maximum growth of 60% whereas starting from 50% only allows a bounce of 50%. Regardless, though, challengers have far more room to grow than incumbents simply by virtue of the fact that voters don’t know them particularly well. For a challenger to get essentially no “bounce” from his convention is not a good sign. (Unless one wants the incumbent to prevail, of course.)

However, as the data above makes clear, average is not enough for President Bush. Incumbents who went on to win reelection had an average lead of 27 points after their convention. Indeed, the average elected incumbent — winners and losers — had a lead of 16 points after their conventions. An average bounce would still leave Bush well below the historical mark set by other incumbents, particularly those who went on to victory.

This logic is, frankly, bizarre. Historical data for quadrennial events decided by factors unique to each race are hardly useful for comparison. Indeed, only three presidents have been re-elected in the last 32 years: Nixon in a blowout over McGovern, Reagan in an even bigger blowout over Mondale, and Clinton in a fairly close three-way race. The requirement is to win more electoral votes than the competition. Meeting historic poll numbers is irrelevant.

Perhaps most important, the average elected incumbent experienced a 4-point drop in his share of the two-party vote from the post-convention polling to Election Day. Thus, to beat the odds, President Bush will need to be garnering 55% of the two-party vote after his convention. Anything less than that and the president will remain in grave political danger.

You’re knowledge of statistics is, frankly, astounding. There is a concept known as “regression to the mean.” The higher the bounce, the larger the likely dropoff. So, if Bush gets a bounce of 3% compared to a historical average of 5%, then the potential counter-bounce diminishes as well.

Still, thanks for the tips just the same.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    I’m gonna go out on a limb, here.
    I’m unconvinced that four points of bounce being seen is unrealistic. I’ll grant that most of the post convention bounce won’t be from the convention itself, directly… most will be from Kerry’s implosion ove rthe past week finaly showing up in the numbers… but it’ll be seen as post Conventon boost.

  2. DC Loser says:


    Why don’t you just unsubscribe to the Kerry emails? Or do you actually get a perverse joy from reading them? I’m still a registered Republican so I get all the GOP crap, like the signed picture of Bush that I immediately throw in the trash.

  3. Brian J. says:

    I see the asterisk that hedges the whole message:

    Bush is not an elected incumbent, he’s a selectednt, ainna?

  4. Basing your campaign strategy on reliance on statistical odds rather than your candidate’s stand on the issues seems rather strange. ‘Any given Sunday,’ and all.

    Oh well.

  5. jen says:

    Do you really think most people on your mailing list are idiots?

    Their lips may say, “No,” but their heads will be nodding, “yes.”

  6. Ron says:

    I’d be interested in getting on that mailing list. Is it all this good?

  7. dcthrowback says:

    Pardon me if I take DCLoser’s claim with several grains of salt and a large margarita.

  8. matt stanley says:

    Easy win for Bush. This is the best any incumbent has looked before his convention. In the future, the homocrats will need to attract more than just blacks and homosexuals to their party.