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Polls are bouncing Bush's way

AFTER ZELL Miller and Dick Cheney had finished their slice-and-dice routine, my son e-mailed with concern that the convention would make it hard for me to stay on my diet, what with all that red meat.

The wobbler-whacking and flop-flip fun had a purpose, as did every speech, including Ah-nold's unabashed pitch to his fellow immigrants, of whom, it happens, there are a good many in the swing states. All those speakers playing Pedro and tossing high, hard ones close to the Democratic chin freed the President to talk not about J. Forbes Kerry -- or even about Michael Dukakis, who has been returned to prime time as one of Kerry's perceived burdens -- but about his own agenda (as a wartime commander-in-chief, he was even freed from the obligation to announce that he was now reporting for duty). Or so one might have imagined.

The president and his advisers had billed his speech as a look ahead, but in truth the speech -- or at least the part that was actually about a domestic agenda for the next four years -- went back to the future and restated, with some additional flourishes and curlicues, the agenda the president said he intended to pursue before the country was attacked three years ago. Compassionate conservatism is back.

But of course Kerry seems just too easy a target for any Republican to pass up, so the president took his whacks, too. And he put the war issue front and center. That is what Kerry wanted, isn't it?

Bush made it clear in his speech that he knows who our enemies are: Al Qaeda and trial lawyers. His speech came on top of a stream of encouraging polling news, to wit:

Kerry's backwards bounce
The National Journal's "Hotline" attempted to determine the status of the candidates based on the most recent polls in each of the 50 states. In states with no recent polls (all are states in which no serious contest is expected) electoral votes were assigned to the candidates in accordance with how that state voted in 2000 and is expected to vote again in 2004.

On Aug. 24, Kerry led in 23 states with 269 electoral votes; Bush in 25 states, with 232 votes.

On Aug. 26, Kerry led in 21 states, with 252 votes, Bush in 27, with 249 votes.

By Aug. 31, Kerry led in 20 states, with 231 votes, Bush in 29 states, with 274 votes.

Thanks for all your help
Okay, so it's probably true that most voters vote for a candidate for president -- they don't vote for a vice president and they certainly don't vote for a First Spouse. But if the election is as close as most observers believe, who knows what may eventually tip the scales? Since many voters profess not to like either of the candidates very much, this may turn out to be a team game: Perceptions about a running mate's ability to step into the presidency, even preconceptions about the sort of First Family voters might be getting, could make a small but critical difference. Republican pollsters believe that's one more bit of bad news for John Kerry.

Republican-sponsored polls in four toss-up states -- Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania -- asked whether voters considered Dick Cheney or John Edwards more qualified to serve as president. Cheney won in all four states, 45-40 in Iowa, 47-39 in Michigan, 44-40 in Minnesota, and 44-38 in Pennsylvania.

The Los Angeles Times asked voters nationally who better fit their idea of a First Lady -- Laura Bush or Teresa Heinz Kerry (both of whom spoke at their party's nominating conventions)? Laura beat Teresa, 56-28.

You really, really like me?
An ABC News/Washington Post poll measured strength of support -- how likely a Bush or Kerry "voter" is likely to stay hitched:

Of Bush voters, 86 percent support the president strongly; only 76 percent of Kerry voters support him strongly. Among voters who reported "leaning toward" Bush, 56 percent said they were enthusiastic about him; among Kerry "leaners" only 40 percent were enthusiastic about Kerry the candidate, meaning their "lean" in Kerry's direction is likely based solely on doubts about Bush. If he succeeds in resolving even some of those doubts, it may be those Kerry voters who flip (or, as the Kerry camp might put it, take a more nuanced position on the race).

The audition
When it came to bashing Kerry, the big names in the GOP were swinging for the fences. For the rest of us, it's still 2004, but it's spring training for '08 and everybody who could take his cuts was trying out for the cleanup spot -- McCain, Giuliani, Pataki, even our own Mitt, who proved that taking on the minor league Dems in the State House has provided some good practice. Two more months and every civic club in New Hampshire and Iowa will have more volunteer lunch-time speakers.

Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, teaches at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International affairs. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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