Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Cookin' With Charlie

Probably like a lot of people, I've signed up for various e-mail briefs that I don't read as regularly as I should. One I rarely skip, however, is Charlie Cook's "Off to the Races." Maybe it's because it only comes once a week, maybe it's that Cook just seems less banal and less blatantly biased than almost any other pundit out there. But I generally appreciate his analysis, and rarely more so than this week:

Welcome to the official start of the silly season, the time in a presidential election campaign when only fools and the truly, hopelessly addicted pay attention to the presidential horse race numbers in polls.

(Um, guilty as charged...)

From now until Labor Day, these polls will reflect the vice presidential selection bounce, then the Democratic convention bounce, and finally a Republican convention bounce -- assuming there is no GOP vice presidential selection bounce. At that point, things should begin to settle down and by about mid-September, the numbers should begin to have some meaning again.

The question will then become how do the race and President Bush's approval ratings look, compared to just before Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., picked North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as his running mate when the race was tied at 45 percent and Bush's approval rating averaged about 48 percent.

I like this thinking, but it seems to rest on the assumption that this will be a "normal" year--like 1988, or 1996, or even 2000. Instead, I think we'll see independent fluctuation prompted by outside factors like the 9/11 Commission Report (late July), possible terror at the Olympics (mid-August), or protest and police violence at the Republican Convention (late August). As Theodore White wrote of the 1968 election (and I'm paraphrasing here), events spin out of control.

Cook goes on to break down the Edwards selection:

Some observers foolishly tout the selection of Edwards as a play for the South. It isn't, but the selection of Edwards firmly puts North Carolina into play. I am tentatively moving it from the Likely Republican column to Lean Republican, but it could easily end up in the Toss Up column before November. This is not just because of the Edwards pick. Even some well-placed Republicans point out that there was some softness for the president in the state as a result of the badly damaged textile and furniture industries and misgivings over the administration's position on the proposed tobacco buyout.

Indeed, Republicans, who scoffed at the idea that Virginia is in play as some Kerry strategists suggest -- acknowledged that North Carolina worried them more. And that was before the Edwards pick.


Apart from the fact that Edwards is someone who is incredibly energetic and charismatic, Kerry's selection of Edwards is much more of a socio-economic play. It is a concerted effort to reach downscale white voters, who may or may not live in small towns and rural America, who might be more open to a message delivered by Edwards than Kerry, and who might better identify with Edwards' roots more than Kerry's.

This strikes me as right on, and the best reason to feel good (and not just relieved) that Kerry tapped Johnny Sunshine over Drippy Dick Gephardt.

And here's the big finish from Cook:

The dynamics of this race do not look good for President Bush.

The political mortality rate for well-known, well-defined incumbents tied at 45 percent is extremely high, even if there are 3 percentage points or so that are likely to go to independent and third party candidates. The mortality rate for incumbents with 48 percent job approval ratings is not much better. While this is almost certainly going to be a very, very close race, I'd rather be John Kerry today than George W. Bush.


Bush, Cheney and company got caught off-guard in 2000, losing the popular vote and coming within 537 votes of losing the election when they thought they were in better shape than that. This time, the Bush campaign is on notice that it is in trouble.

Cook suggests that these "dynamics" could impel Bush to drop Dick Cheney from the ticket. This strikes me as a longshot, just because the dilemma is that of the three guys who'd make the most impact as replacement running mates, two of them--John McCain and Colin Powell--almost certainly wouldn't take the job, and the third, Rudy Giuliani, would make the fundamentalist base Karl Rove is so assiduously cultivating unhappy with his moderate positions on gay rights and abortion.

I guess Bush could ask Tennessee Senator Bill Frist to run, but Frist hasn't exactly done a bang-up job as Republican leader in the Senate, and if he won (or quit), a Democratic governor would appoint his replacement, restoring a 50-50 partisan split and opening the door for Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee to pull a Jeffords and throw control back to the Democrats. Polling doesn't indicate that Frist would help all that much anyway--and that's even before the Democrats spread the news that the guy killed cats as a medical student. Bottom line: I think Bush is stuck with Cheney, and will fight it out that way.

By the way, you can sign up for the free Charlie Cook weekly e-mail here, if you're so inclined. I recommend it.

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