Trail Mix: The Disconnected

Back in the heady days of January, when Howard Dean was mapping out his general-election strategy against George W. Bush, the Democrats thought they had spotted their Moby Dick. All they needed to do was attract new voters, disillusioned voters and anyone else who didn't vote. That way they could swamp the Republicans at the polls and destroy the conventional wisdom that America remains an evenly divided nation. Tom Harkin, the Iowa senator who was Dean's most important asset at the time, recalled a conversation with the late Paul Wellstone, the Minnesota senator who was the keeper of the liberal flame. "If all we're going to do is just fight over a shrinking pool of voters," Wellstone told Harkin, "we lose."

That was three months ago, and of course it was Dean who lost--despite his promise that he could bring a whole swath of disaffected voters to the Democratic Party in November. Now it's Ralph Nader, the former Green party candidate, who hawks those same promises after building his effective (but totally misguided) campaign on the same platform in 2000.

But does the whale really exist, and can anyone catch it? Is it really possible to overcome all the problems that stop people from voting? One of the best attempts to answer those questions is a new poll of single women conducted in Florida, Missouri and Washington state. Why single women? It turns out they make up the largest group of unregistered voters, representing 24 per cent of the population--a group four times larger than the now-famous NASCAR dads who enthralled the nation all of two months ago. If single women voted at the same rate as married women in 2000, there would have been an extra 6 million voters to fight over--with or without butterfly ballots and hanging chads. According to the Democratic polling firm. Greenberg, Quinlan and Rosner, these voters are mostly against the war in Iraq, and strongly for affordable health care and better public schools. They identify closely with other working women and they don't much like big corporations. In other words, they're lost Democrats.

The only problem for Democrats is they are also deeply dismayed with politics and politicians in general. By far the biggest reason these single women don't vote is because "candidates are more interested in getting elected than trying to improve our government." Among unregistered voters, the next biggest factors are because they think governments don't address their concerns and are in the pockets of the rich and big business.

Can John Kerry--a senator for the last two decades (and a wealthy one at that)--persuade these voters that he's different, and that he's worth voting for? Kerry (whose favorite slogan is "The real deal") would like to think so, with his signature positions against the outsourcing of jobs overseas and for expanding access to healthcare. However his Senate record--and the Bushies' charge that he's a flip-flopper--are critical. Never mind the fact that both Kerry and George W. Bush have reversed their positions repeatedly on foreign and domestic affairs. "They are clearly trying to show that Kerry isn't authentic and you shouldn't put hope in him that there will be change," says Stan Greenberg, who conducted the survey of single women. "That serves the purpose of taking the air out of the argument for change."

It's not just single women who are confused by the fog of uncertainty swirling around Kerry. According to this week's ABC/Washington Post poll, Kerry is not seen as a candidate who takes a position and sticks with it (48 percent say he doesn't; 41 percent say he does). In contrast, the vast majority (79 percent to 20 percent) believes Bush is consistent. That's not to say they all agree with the positions Bush is sticking to. Most of those surveyed think the Bush administration has no clear plan for handling Iraq and believe the United States is bogged down there. Yet they're not ready to trust Kerry with what is obviously a vital test of leadership. By a margin of 52 to 41 points, Americans trust Bush more than Kerry to handle Iraq after a dismal month of casualties there. Even on the economy, which was previously one of Kerry's strongest issues, the president is now running neck and neck with the senator.

If the Kerry campaign thought it could sit back and wait for the bad news to drown the Bush administration, it was wrong. Far from eroding Bush's position in the polls, the grim events in Iraq are pushing voters to rally around the president's leadership, especially since his prime-time White House press conference on Iraq. Bush now holds a 5 point lead over Kerry in a match-up that includes Nader (who gets a respectable 7 points). With Nader off the ballot, Bush's lead is down to 2 points. Those numbers are very close to this week's poll by CNN/Gallup/USA Today. They also represent a reversal from the NEWSWEEK poll earlier this month (giving Kerry a 4 point lead in a race that includes Nader) and the Washington Post poll last month (giving Kerry a 5 point lead).

Of course these are just a handful of poll numbers, at a very volatile time, six months before the general election. All the headline numbers of Bush versus Kerry are also within the margin of error. But they effectively map out the challenge for Kerry that lies ahead. If voters have doubts about Bush, they harbor even bigger doubts about Kerry. In a field of doubtful candidates, at a deeply uncertain time in American history, the voters seem to be leaning toward the devil they know--at least for now. Kerry is about to embark on a new round of advertising focusing on his personal story, which may help him build a new comfort zone with anxious voters. But it's unlikely to change much for the disillusioned voters who distrust politicians like Kerry and Bush. For now, those long--cherished hopes of connecting with the disconnected look like they will have to wait for another candidate, and another election.