Out on a limb

out on a limb

Remember— you heard it here first

I make a bold prediction: the upcoming US presidential election will be a landslide, not the photo finish anticipated by the chattering classes.

electoral mapThe conventional wisdom holds that the US is evenly divided on the question of George W Bush's desire to be a two-term president, unlike his daddy George H W Bush. The electoral votes of most states are considered to be safely leaning either toward Bush or toward John Kerry, with only a handful of so-called "swing states" up for grabs.

Accordingly, two utterly predictable things have happened:

• First, in the great American tradition of oversimplifying everything, the media have cast the election as an epic battle between "red states" — Republican leaning — and "blue states" — Democrat leaning.

• Second, the political parties have poured the vast majority of their resources into the "swing states." These are where the advertising wars are being fought and where the candidates are doing most of their personal campaigning. Bush, for example, recently made his 30th trip to Pennsylvania (CNN.com), a state with 21 electoral votes.

So why do I predict a landslide in the face of this overwhelming conventional wisdom? It's my nature to be something of a contrarian, but I think there are three good reasons to make this prediction.

Bush approval rating
Bush's approval rating has fallen steadily since taking office. (Click to enlarge. Source: NYTimes.)

Bush approval rating. Fewer people approve of Bush's performance in office now than at any time since his inauguration. The "rally 'round the president" spike after 9/11 has completely faded away. At the same time, his disapproval rating has increased over that time, and most of those who were undecided at the beginning of his term have now made up their mind, and not in the president's favor.

Poll after recent poll shows more people who think the country is "going in the wrong direction." For example, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted July 19-21, 2004, found that 48% think the country is going in the wrong direction, compared to only 36% who think the country is going in the right direction.

Similarly, the number of people who think the Iraq war was a mistake continues to grow, hardly a comfort to someone who calls himself a "war president." Combine that with niggling doubts about the economy and Reagan's famous "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" question, and the seeds are sown for a big upset as people ask the gut question, "Do I want to trust this guy with another four years?"

money raised
Kerry is raising more money each month than Bush (Click to enlarge. Source: NYTimes.)

Follow the money. Since Kerry vanquished all contenders in the Democratic primaries, he has consistently raised more money per month than Bush. Money talks, especially when it comes in the small contributions now required by campaign finance laws. Kerry's burgeoning war chest reflects a large number of people rallying around the candidate of a traditionally fractious Democrat party. Significantly, I think, this is money going to the Kerry campaign itself, not to the party, nor to political advocacy organizations like Americans Coming Together, MoveOn.org, and Club for Growth. These are also known as "527 organizations" after the section of the IRS code that grants them tax-exempt status.

cash on hand
Kerry's cash on hand is catching up to Bush's, despite Bush's fundraising head start (Click to enlarge. Source: NYTimes.)

Bush made it Job 1 of his presidency to amass a formidable war chest for his campaign. Despite Bush's fundraising head start, Kerry is closing the cash-on-hand gap, heavy spending notwithstanding.

Money spent
Bush has spent liberally against Kerry since March (Click to enlarge. Source: NYTimes.)

Both candidates have been spending heavily. In March, Bush spent $100M, mostly on negative ads against Kerry. Since then the Kerry campaign has outspent the Bush campaign.

Kerry favorability
Bush advertising has driven up Kerry "negatives" but Kerry "positives" have kept pace (Click to enlarge. Source: NYTimes.)

Bush supporters look at the results of all this spending and claim success, pointing out that Kerry's "negatives" have gone up substantially as a result. On the other hand, Kerry supporters point to the solid growth in Kerry's "positives" and point out that the Democrat party hasn't even had its convention yet, making Kerry merely the "presumptive" nominee, and claim that all that Bush advertising hasn't been all that effective.

Wildcards. There are two big wildcards in this election that neither candidate can control. Each has the potential to dramatically affect the results of the election, and timing is everything.

flag-draped coffinIraq. The US won the war in Iraq, but it is losing the peace. "Sovereignty" has been turned over to the Iraqis in name, but 140,000 American servicemen and women are tied down in Iraq trying to provide some sort of security and stability. It's a dicey situation, and everyone knows it. Public confidence in the Iraq war and Bush's handling of the war is slipping away. A major incident in Iraq, close to the US election, could well tip sentiment against Bush in favor of new leadership to get us out of the mess we are in.

Spain train attack Terrorist attack. It has been nearly three years since the attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon. Despite all the rhetoric about fighting terror abroad so we don't have to fight it in America, the reality is that the US is still vulnerable, and it is a mass delusion to think that the war on terror can be fought somewhere else. Another attack on the US homeland by terrorists would send shock waves through the country and could very well be the defining factor in the election.

Americans typically react to a threatening event by rallying around the president — witness the tremendous spike in Bush's approval immediately after the 9/11 attacks. An attack before the election would result in many people reasoning that you can't change horses in the middle of the stream — a plus for Bush. But if enough time elapsed between the attack and the election, I think it is also plausible for Bush didn't keep us safe reasoning to take hold — a plus for Kerry. Both sides would exploit the attack. They might do it subtly, but they would do it.

Jenna Bush
Jenna Bush, protected by Secret Service agents ready to sacrifice their life for her, setting out on a campaign trip with daddy (click picture to enlarge)

Although polls show that upwards of 80% of Americans have already made up their minds about the election, that could easily change. Outside events, beyond the control of either candidate, could easily tip the election one way or the other. I could be all wrong, but I don't think the election is going to be as close as most of the punditocracy seems to think.

Besides all that, it won't take much more campaign "help" from first daughter Jenna to remind American voters that George W is part of the privileged elite and really isn't just like them after all.

So, if the election on November 2nd ends in a landslide, remember who told you first. And if it doesn't — never mind!