Do Democrats want Kerry to be ahead?

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Oct. 23 2004 1:59 AM

Second Best

Should Democrats worry if Kerry noses ahead of Bush?

CLEVELAND—Is John Kerry finally winning? His campaign, which only a week ago was defensive about the candidate's standing in the polls, is now more confidently asserting that he's pulled ahead. Before Friday, the Kerry campaign hadn't been willing to make that claim. Typically, the Bush campaign would argue that the president was leading in the race, and the Kerry campaign would respond by saying, no, it's a tie. But in a Friday afternoon conference call, Kerry's people finally started pointing to the scoreboard.

Here are the numbers outlined by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg on the latest Democracy Corps poll. The numbers are consistent with the latest polls from news organizations, most of which are in keeping with what the Kerry people have been saying all along, that the race is a toss-up. In Greenberg's poll, the horse race is a statistical tie, with Kerry at 49 and Bush at 47. The president's approval rating is 48 percent, "which is just at the edge of electability," Greenberg noted.

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So why the confidence? Greenberg cited two internal numbers from the part of the poll that focused on "persuadable" voters. That group includes undecided voters, Bush and Kerry supporters who say their minds remain open, and a third group, Bush voters who say they want the country to go in a significantly different direction. The first number Greenberg cited was this: Fifty-seven percent of the persuadable voters in the Democracy Corps poll said they want to know how a candidate will "make the economy and health care better for people," while only 32 percent want to know "how you'll make us safe." The other number Greenberg highlighted: Given a choice between "I'm comfortable with changing to a new person if he has the right priorities" and "Bush has made us safer and I'm reluctant to change," 54 percent of persuadable voters said they were comfortable with changing, and 45 percent said they were reluctant. The responses to those two questions, Greenberg said, show that Kerry has "an audience" ready to listen to his message. He just has to "seal the deal."

With 11 days to go, that puts Kerry in the exact same place he was with more than three months to go, before the Democratic convention. He had a willing and persuadable audience then, and he proved unable to win them over. People preferred the "generic Democrat" to Bush, but they soured on the specific Democrat. Fortunately for Kerry, in the first debate, Bush reminded voters of what they don't like about him, and now we're back to square one again.

That dynamic is in keeping with the "spotlight" theory of the election being peddled by Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times. The theory goes something like this: Given that a slight majority of the electorate doesn't want Bush, and that a different but similarly slight majority doesn't want Kerry, the winning candidate will be the one who manages to keep the spotlight on his opponent's flaws, rather than his own.

Up to now, I've rejected Brownstein's theory and argued that Kerry has to do more than just watch Bush lose. He has to win the separate "referendum on the challenger" by persuading Americans that he's an acceptable replacement for the president. But if Brownstein is right, neither candidate should get too optimistic by polling data that shows him ahead. Because every time for the past few months that this race has been one man's race to lose, that man hasn't had any trouble finding a way to lose it.

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.