Democracy Corps has a new analysis out detailing the state of the race. They find a statistically insignificant Kerry lead of 49 to 48 percent, but it's the internals that really offer reason to hope that in three and a half months, the Bush Reign of Error will conclude:
- A majority of voters--52 percent--want to see the country go in "a different direction" from how they perceive Bush is leading
- Kerry is favored by margins of between six to 18 points on questions of who would do a better job with the economy, education, health care, raising middle class living standards and handling prescription drugs for seniors. The sampled voters favored him by four points on the question of "who is on your side."
- Kerry is also up by two on the general question of foreign policy. He trails on Iraq, but only by four points. Only on the War on Terror question does he trail Bush by double digits--and even that 12-point spread is markedly down from a few weeks earlier.
I don't want to get overconfident here. But the central dynamic of the race really seems to have shifted in the last two weeks (I'd argue it started even before the debgates), from a referendum on Kerry's character to one on Bush's record. This is what the more serene Democrats have been waiting for: election observers commonly say that for incumbents who aren't clearly cruising, like Reagan in '84 or Clinton in '96, there's a two-step process to the voting decision. First, they more or less reject the incumbent; then they make a determination about the challenger.
For Bush to win, he needs a fair number of "unenthusiastic" voters--folks who don't necessarily like him or how he's performed in office but are so dubious about Kerry, and unwilling to go third-party, that they'll give him another try. This was a lot easier before the debates, because--though I don't like to admit this--the Republicans are a lot better at campaigns than are the Dems. They make generally more effective advertisements, their strategic thinking is superior, they understand the dynamics of news cycles and how to "sell" storylines.
And to an almost shocking extent, they succeeded in making the campaign a referendum on their caricature of Kerry, rather than Bush's record. But once the two guys were side by side, Kerry just had to cross a threshold of viability; he had to convince enough voters that he wasn't a quivering Francophile and could be trusted to do a decent job in office. And he had to forcefully remind voters of what a majority of them didn't, and still don't, like about Bush in the first place: the rigid thinking, the arrogance, the affinities with big business and the special interests.
The best line all year on The Daily Show (which is saying something) was "the facts themselves have 'an anti-Bush bias.'" That's how the campaign is now playing out--Bush's record of failure and "are you/is the country better off than you/we were four years ago"--and why, short of a Kerry meltdown in one of the next two debates or, I guess, a bin Laden capture on October 29, I'm feeling pretty good about the race.