Trail Mix: Swing Factor

Here's the general election by the numbers. In their first full month of hand-to-hand combat, George W. Bush has outspent John F. Kerry by almost seven to one on TV ads. Over almost the same period, the media has been saturated with negative stories about the White House and the 9/11 commission.

The result: almost nothing has changed.

But what about those reports that Kerry's ratings were plunging under the tidal wave of Bush's ads? It turns out the data were less useful than anyone thought. In the 18 states where the Bush-Cheney campaign has been waging its war on the airwaves, Kerry's unfavorable numbers rose by all of one point during the fearsome month of March, from 28 to 29 percent. According to the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey, Bush's unfavorables rose by the same amount, from 39 to 40 percent.

That makes you wonder about the value of spending $40 million on TV ads, as the Bush campaign reportedly shelled out. But it also raises questions about the impact of Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism czar at the White House and his supposedly explosive attacks on Bush, and his national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Breathless Republicans insisted they were winning the airwars while Kerry was out of the picture on the ski slopes and then in the hospital having shoulder surgery. Breathless Democrats thought they were winning by piercing Bush's body armor on the war on terror. Both sides need to take a chill pill. That goes for the national media, too, which hypes every sneeze and cough on the campaign trail. Either the voters are not tuning into the slugfest of the rival campaigns, or they don't really believe what either side says at this stage.

There's an alternative explanation to the waste-of-money story. Both sides have been so equally balanced, counterpunching with such force, that they have neutralized one another's attacks. That includes the counterpunching by outside groups, such as MoveOn, which airs a new TV ad today timed to Rice's Thursday appearance before the 9/11 commission. So what if Bush's ads portray Kerry like something out of the Keystone Cops? MoveOn uses a Bush imitator to say how Richard Clarke was right all along. Subtle, they're not. But does that mean they're effective just because they're aggressive? Question for the 23,000 donors who paid for the MoveOn ad: when was the last time you bought a car because of an ad trashing the competition?

Even if the candidates' numbers are moving slowly, another set of numbers are shifting rapidly. Anxiety over Iraq is rising sharply, and there's increasing pressure to bring U.S. troops home--whether or not Iraq is stable and secure. That translates into a total reversal of support for the way the president is handling Iraq. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, Americans disapprove of Bush's performance in Iraq by 53 to 40 percent. In mid-January, they actually approved of his performance in Iraq by 59 to 37 percent. A big majority (57 to 35 percent) still believe the war was the right decision. But similar numbers (57 to 32 percent) say Bush has no clear plan for coming out of Iraq successfully.

It's easy to look at these polls and wonder if there's some contradiction here. Do voters support the war or not? Do they support Bush's leadership in the war or not? Yet these are subtle positions on a deeply complex and emotional subject. They can't be captured in a 30-second TV ad, but they can be shaped by the presidential candidates themselves. If Bush can convince voters that he has a credible exit strategy, his approval numbers are likely to turn on a dime, just as they did when Saddam Hussein was captured. And if Kerry can convince voters he can build a bigger coalition in Iraq, the support could swing to him. Right now, neither candidate has crossed that bar. Instead, the bloodshed and anarchy in Iraq pose dangers for both sides. For Bush, his promises of a great future for Iraq sound like propaganda more than a convincing plan for a new Iraqi government. For Kerry, his criticism of Iraq policy looks like he's wallowing in all the bad news.

That's what happened this week, as Kerry suggested the handover of power in Iraq this summer was timed for the general election back home. Even White House officials concede they are feeling the intense pressure of domestic politics in their handling of Iraq's future. Yet Kerry's comments, coming on a day when a dozen Marines were killed by Iraqi insurgents, sounded shrill. "I think they wanted to get the troops out, get the transfer out of the way as fast as possible without regard to the stability of Iraq," Kerry told reporters.

"It is a mistake to set an arbitrary date and I hope that date has nothing to do with the elections here in the United States." Kerry could have made that argument at any time in the last month, as the Bush administration has struggled to draw up credible plans for transferring political power to the Iraqis. Yet his timing suggests a lack of sensitivity to the news of the casualties and a lack of awareness about the changing public attitudes towards U.S. troops in Iraq. According to the Pew survey, Americans want U.S. troops to stay in Iraq by a margin of just 6 points. Six months ago, that margin was 32 points.

Kerry also miscued late last week when the good news finally arrived on the economy. After months of dismal job growth, the economy chalked up 308,000 new jobs in March--the biggest number since April 2000. Kerry's response was to say he was "obviously" pleased. But he went on to attack the ballooning deficit, the lack of new manufacturing jobs and outsourcing in general. His detailed proposals--outlined in speeches today in Washington and last month in Detroit--involve shrinking the deficit and creating 10 million new jobs in just four years. Both suggestions seem admirable, but largely unrealistic. Could a Democratic president really rein in spending with a Republican Congress? Can any president confidently predict the creation of millions of jobs?

Voters are right to be skeptical about such claims, just as they're right to doubt the White House claims that everything will work out just fine in Iraq. TV may be the focus of this phase of the campaign, but the hard news is shifting public opinion far more effectively than the soft ads.