Bush, on the other hand, has nowhere to go but down. His record is only now being investigated and exposed. A year ago, Gore had a beaten-up job approval rating of 61-30 in the USA Today poll. In the same survey, Bush had an unblemished job approval rating of 68-10. By July, however, Bush's rating had slid to 54-18, while Gore's hadn't moved. That was before the Democratic National Committee began running ads last week accusing Bush of neglecting children's health care in Texas. Since July, according to the new Times poll, the ratio of respondents who think Bush "cares about the needs and problems of people like yourself" to those who don't has tumbled from 55-36 to 49-41—a net shift of 11 percentage points—while the ratio who say the same of Gore has held firm at 63-30.
On Wall Street, when a stock falls through its "support level"—a previous low it hasn't breached in a long time—analysts downgrade its expected trading range. Bush's relative position on the question of how favorably or unfavorably each candidate is viewed has now plunged through that level. From Aug. 4-18, Gore's favorable rating in the USA Today survey rose 12 points—double its previous record increase—to 64 percent. Meanwhile, Bush's favorable rating fell an unprecedented seven points, to 60 percent. It was the first time Gore's favorable rating had passed Bush's since the primaries, and the first time Bush's unfavorable rating had ever exceeded Gore's. And there's no sign Bush has hit bottom. Today's figures show Gore's favorable-unfavorable ratio in the Times poll surpassing Bush's for the first time—an 18-point net gain vis-à-vis Bush since July.
4. Moral expectations game. Everyone assumes that Gore is weak on credibility and character. For that reason, voters are surprised and impressed only when he appears honest and principled. Since late July, they have noticed three things about him: 1) He picked a running mate who talks about God and who condemned Clinton's conduct in the Monica Lewinsky affair; 2) he kissed his wife passionately at the Democratic convention; and 3) he declared himself "my own man." Bush, the candidate of morals, would have received no credit for doing these things. Gore, the candidate of the Buddhist temple and "no controlling legal authority," has been roundly applauded for them.
In the Post survey, Gore has climbed 29 net percentage points since late July on the question of whether he's "honest and trustworthy." This puts him even with Bush, whose numbers on that question haven't changed. Despite the GOP's emphasis on bringing honor to the White House, the Republican convention failed to increase Bush's 11-point lead on the Post's question of which candidate would do a better job of "encouraging high moral standards and values." On the contrary, the Democratic convention wiped out that lead. In the Times survey, Bush's net advantage on the question of which candidate "can be trusted to keep his word as President" has dwindled from 12 points to two. And in the USA Today poll, by a net margin of 10 points, likely voters are more inclined to say that Gore, not Bush, has the personal qualities necessary to be president.
5. Collateral damage. Gore's vulnerability, according to the Times, is that 47 percent of those who intend to vote for him have misgivings about him, whereas only 38 percent of Bush's voters doubt their choice. Republican pugilists think Bush can pry away these ambivalent Gore supporters by running more attack ads. But Bush can't drive up Gore's negatives without driving up his own. After Gore's issue-oriented convention speech and two weeks of Republican commercials slamming Gore's character, Bush now trails Gore by 20 net points on the Times' question of whether each candidate "has been spending more time … explaining what he would do as President or attacking" his opponent.
Likewise, Bush has fallen 16 net points below Gore on Time/CNN's question of whether each man has "made too many attacks on his opponent." He's five net points below Gore on the Post's question of whether each candidate "has been conducting mainly a positive or mainly a negative campaign." Most ominous is Bush's plunge on USA Today's question of whether there's "no chance whatsoever you would vote for" one candidate or the other. A month ago, pundits declared Gore all but dead because 47 percent of likely voters said they would never vote for Gore, while only 30 percent said that of Bush. Now 43 percent say there's no chance they'll vote for Bush, while only 37 percent say the same of Gore. The only candidate Bush is killing is himself.
6. Political judgment. Bush, his aides, and the Republican National Committee have made several very stupid decisions, compounded by stubbornness. Bush had positioned himself as the candidate who would "change the tone" and bring a "responsibility era" to Washington, in contrast to Gore's gamesmanship. But in the past two weeks, Bush has approved two sarcastic personal attack ads, refused to apologize for using a gross vulgarity to describe a reporter at a campaign event, and mounted a preposterous campaign, including a TV ad, to frame Gore as a liar and coward for refusing to ditch the traditional bipartisan debates in favor of a series of smaller venues dictated by Bush.
Can Bush turn himself around? Theoretically, yes. But stupidity and stubbornness are traits. It's unrealistic to expect a person who has just done a series of stupid and stubborn things to stop being stupid and stubborn. It took Bush and his team days to accept that nobody else saw the debate controversy the way they did. Their retreat from that ploy raised momentary hopes that they were capable of self-correction—which they promptly dashed by approving a second sarcastic attack ad virtually identical to the one that had just failed.
A candidate who puts pride before prudence, refuses to learn from his mistakes, and is capable of living for days in an alternate political universe can only survive while he's ahead. Once he falls behind, there's no reason to think he's up to the task of correcting his course and regaining control of the race. Yes, Bush came back to beat John McCain in South Carolina. But in that case, Bush had a firewall of phone banks, military backers, and boundless financial superiority. The swing voters in that contest were conservative Republicans. Bush's little-known opponent was prone to fatally undisciplined anger and was vulnerable to ads full of previously unaired negative information. Against Gore, Bush has none of those crutches. Stick a fork in him. He's done.
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