Recent polls indicate the 2004 presidential race has turned into an historical anomaly.
Instead of a referendum on the incumbent, as re-election years usually are, it has become a referendum on the challenger. And even with the war in Iraq going badly for the Bush administration, and most people expressing little confidence in the economy, Sen. John Kerry has been so tarred by the Bush campaign (as a flip-flopper) and the likes of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (as a liar), that he is failing to inspire trust among voters.
The Bush-Cheney campaign team has artfully created the one race they can win by doing a better job of defining their opponent in negative terms than Kerry has of defining himself as a viable alternative.
All of that could change in a flash if Kerry has an outstanding debate performance. But if the president does not make a major mistake it is going to be hard, with just over 30 days remaining, to change the dynamics of the race.
The Kerry campaign's hope for the debate is a strong focus on all that's gone wrong in Iraq, including the mistakes that the president has made in his handling of that conflict. But it is not clear from the polls that Kerry will benefit from a focus on the downward spiral of events in Iraq. That is because voters, according to the polls, still trust Mr. Bush more than Kerry to handle future events in Iraq (53 percent to 40 percent, according to the Washington Post-ABC News Poll).
In the head-to head contest, the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows President Bush holding a 51 percent to 45 percent lead over Kerry among people who are likely to vote in November. The latest Pew Research Center poll of registered voters has the president in the lead by a similar count of 48 percent to 40 percent. But it's not the margin, which is greater than the margin of error, that matters most in these findings.
The most compelling aspect of these polls is that the voters are not embracing the president so much as they are turning away from Kerry. The Post poll found that about half of the nation thinks the country is headed in the wrong direction. Fifty percent told the Post they disapprove of Mr. Bush's handling of the war in Iraq. And most say the war is not worth fighting (51 percent). Fifty percent also give the president the thumbs down on his handling of the economy.
So why are Mr. Bush's numbers climbing and Kerry's numbers falling?
The quick answer is that when American voters are asked which candidate can best handle key issues, the answer is the president. In the Pew poll, the Post-ABC poll and the Fox News poll, Mr. Bush is ahead of Kerry on handling the situation in Iraq — even as it continues to worsen. And the president has more than a 20-percentage-point lead in the Pew poll (plus a 17 percentage point lead in the Post poll) when voters are asked who can better handle the war against terrorists.
Kerry holds the lead when voters are asked who can do a better job of dealing with health care and the economy. But homeland security and the war in Iraq are the dominant issues for the media and American voters. And the president has hammered home the refrain that he is a strong leader in the war on terror while making Kerry out to be just about the handmaiden of the terrorists. In fact, Washington Post writers Dan Balz and Vanessa Williams, in describing the poll to readers, said voters use negative language to describe Kerry as a leader — wishy-washy — that is "almost as if they are reading from Bush campaign ad scripts."
While these poll numbers still indicate a close election, the closeness hides some other surprising trends among voters that bode ill for the challenger. For example, if the election was limited to black Americans, Kerry leads the president 73 percent to 12 percent, according to Pew. That is a noticeable drop from August, when Kerry led by 83 percent to 6 percent. But black voters are still clearly with Kerry.
What if the election was limited to white Americans? Lyndon Johnson, in his 1964 campaign for the White House, was the last Democrat to win the support of most white voters. That trend is holding up for the 2004 race with 54 percent of whites telling pollsters they plan to vote for the president and just 35 percent saying they intend to vote for Kerry.
Most of Kerry's support among whites comes from white women, who have been the most sought-after demographic group of the 2004 race.
Among women of all races, the Pew poll has Kerry ahead — but not by much. While he led among all women by 10 points in August, he leads by only 3 points in the Pew poll now (45 percent to 42 percent). Last week, a Fox News poll actually had the president leading Kerry among women voters, 44 to 42 percent.
Consider that Al Gore won the female vote by 11 percentage points in 2000. And add to the picture the fact that black women are more than 90 percent in support of Kerry. Then you quickly get the idea that the president is rapidly improving his standing with white women voters to the point that could prove decisive for the election.
Bush has also picked up votes among people under the age of 30. Pew found Mr. Bush leading 48 to 42 among voters 18-29 years old. In August, Kerry was leading the president among young voters as he was leading the president with women. It is the same story with voters who have only a high school education, a group that Al Gore won for Democrats in the 2000 presidential race. They are now in the Bush column by 50 percent to 37 percent.
As the nation gets ready to watch the debates, the polls reveal a surprisingly tough playing field for a contender who is up against an incumbent seen as polarizing and running on an uneven track record. How is this possible? In the old Nike commercials for basketball star Michael Jordan, the punch line explained his amazing feats: "It must be the shoes." In the 2004 presidential race, the punch line is "It must be the negative ads."
NPR's Juan Williams is a senior correspondent for Morning Edition.