Kerry's poll position.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Oct. 18 2004 1:04 AM

Kerry's Poll Position

The campaign argues that he's not really behind.

PALM BEACH, Fla.—John Kerry's campaign professes to be unconcerned about the multiple national polls that have shown a small but discernible downward movement for the Democratic nominee since the third presidential debate. But the campaign's studied nonchalance doesn't extend to how the press covers the polls. During Sunday's flight from Columbus, Ohio, to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., reporters on the Kerry plane receive a "Polling Update," a two-page explanation of how the campaign would like us to view the latest public polls. The very first sentence: "The race is tied."

The abbreviated Kerry spin: 1) Bush pollster Matthew Dowd told the Austin American-Statesman on March 21 that "presidents finish roughly the same as their job approval rating." Zogby has Bush's job approval at 47, Newsweek has it at 47, and Time has it at 49. 2) Among registered voters, the Zogby, Newsweek, and Time polls show a statistical tie. (The release doesn't mention it, but the same is true for the just-released Gallup Poll. President Bush leads Kerry among likely voters by 8 points, 52-44, but among registered voters it's Bush 49, Kerry 46, with a 3 percent margin of error.) 3) Kerry's ahead in the battleground states, which is what really matters.

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The release isn't internally consistent. It treats Kerry's narrow deficit in national polls differently than his narrow lead in state polls: Kerry's one-point shortfall among registered voters in the Newsweek poll is called a tie, but Kerry's two-point leads in Minnesota and Pennsylvania are "consistent with repeated polls showing a Kerry edge." That, of course, is the Bush campaign's argument at the national level: Every poll released since the third debate has shown a Bush lead of between two points and eight points.

Until Sunday, that is. A new Democracy Corps poll conducted by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg shows the race as a statistical tie, but this time it's Kerry who has the higher horse-race number, 50 to Bush's 47, with a three-point margin of error. Greenberg and Joe Lockhart held a conference call to trumpet the results. The Kerry plane was in the air at the time, but the campaign released a transcript of the call. The message: At the third debate, Kerry consolidated his base. He gained among African Americans and union households. Greenberg calls this a "one-time consolidation of Democrats that is not going to be easily eroded."

Lockhart dismisses the Newsweek poll's fluctuations over the course of the past two months: "It's just not credible. The electorate has not swung 20 percent, from 13 down to one up to eight down. It's just not what's happening in the electorate, so it's just not something we take very seriously." Lockhart also emphasizes that in the 2000 election, polls of registered voters were more accurate than polls of likely voters. That echoes Ruy Texeira's Emerging Democratic Majority Weblog, which lately exists to argue that Kerry isn't doing as badly in the polls as he seems. And Lockhart emphasizes what Al Gore discovered: "This election is not going to take place nationally. It's going to take place in the battleground states."

Which raises the obvious question: Could Kerry win the presidency but lose the popular vote? At Daily Kos, political scientist Tom Schaller says it's unlikely but possible, particularly because Kerry is underperforming Gore's numbers in blue states, including Massachusetts and New Jersey. If that's not far-fetched enough for you, here's a scenario I discovered while playing with the Los Angeles Times' electoral map: Bush wins Ohio, Florida, and Colorado. Kerry sweeps the rest of the battleground: Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The result: a 269-269 tie. Democrats cry that Bush gets "selected" again, this time by the House of Representatives. Maybe that's the kind of trick fate plays when you nominate a fan of the Boston Red Sox.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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