Sunday, September 05, 2004

Phils Too Late; Cassandras Too Early
The Phils just completed their seventh straight series (counting the one-game makup loss against the White Sox from last Monday) to end in a sweep. Three up, four down, but because two of the lost series were one- and two-gamers respectively, the team is at 9-9 overall during the span. After getting great starts from someone new (Gavin Floyd), someone borrowed (Corey Lidle) and someone, well, not old but increasingly seasoned (Brett Myers), the team is at 68-68, back at breakeven.

The cavalry finally showed up this weekend: in addition to the promoted Floyd and slugging first baseman Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell, Billy Wagner and Ryan Madson all came off the disabled list. Of course, this is kind of analogous to a couple mounted companies showing up at Little Big Horn two weeks after the massacre, but it's still nice to see these guys at least trying to earn their ridiculous contracts.

In other real-world news, the elephants have left New York, leaving behind the steaming pile of crap you'd expect from such a passing through. And while both Time and Newsweek quickly released polls showing Bush out to a double-digit lead, methodological problems in both and more reliable temperature-taking have left the two campaigns united in a belief that Bush is really more like four points up, not ten or eleven.

So the panic that most of my fellow anti-Republicans are feeling is probably overstated and at the least premature. The election is still manifestly too close to call, and I don't think many of the normal "rules" apply this year. The most historically reliable predictors of who will win--GDP growth, approval rating--are all exactly between the figures typically seen in an incumbent victory, and an incumbent defeat. And second-level polling questions like "Does Bush deserve re-election, or is it time for someone new?" continue to suggest that voters aren't thrilled with the president's job performance, but have not been "sold" on Kerry.

Kerry does have some catching up to do, mostly I'd say in the "showing balls" department. As of Friday, he's started to hit back a lot harder, and he just made a big TV advertising buy in the battleground states. Remember, after receiving the nomination both candidates are "limited" to the $75 million or so in public funds. Kerry, accepting his nomination a month earlier than did Bush, basically went dark in August so he could have financial parity for the post-Labor Day stretch run. Was this a good idea? Bad idea? It doesn't look good now, but most elections aren't won in August. (1988 was an exception, and this year does bear some resemblance to that one--but Bush has the albatross of his record, which his dad did not in '88.)

It's probably more important now to convince wavering voters in the middle of his resolve (and of Bush's failures) than to make a detailed policy argument (though that helps too, in terms of winning endorsements and, you'd hope, favorable media coverage.) As this fascinating if troubling recent New Yorker article explains, most voters don't really have a consistent political philosophy anyway, which is why polling constantly reveals "findings" such as large support for new federal benefit programs and wide agreement that taxes are too high--but perceptions of personality, empathy and character. Kerry IMO has a better story to tell here than Bush, but he hasn't yet told it well. His history suggests he gets better at this down the stretch of campaigns, but that's not really something on which Democrats should rest their main hopes. Also, Bush's endgame this year will be better than in 2000, when he screwed around in California over the last week or so and watched his margin evaporate--though it's worth noting that the Democrats should enjoy near financial parity at the end this time, so Kerry probably won't have to give up on uphill-but-winnable states the way Gore (stupidly) did in Ohio four years ago.

Add in the general trend of undecideds to break against the incumbent and it really is up for grabs right now. The debates might have a slight impact, but external events--particularly the economy and Iraq--and field operations will decide it. Both sides have invested millions, and are going all out to register new voters and make sure the reliables turn out on election day. It will be very, very close--I doubt the winner gets more than 51 percent or 320 EVs. So we have to keep pushing, all of us.

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