Politics & Policy

Hidden Numbers

What the NYTimes won't tell you about its own poll.

There has been virtually no coverage of the presidential ballot tests in the CBS/New York Times poll conducted March 10-14, 2004–an elegant display of media bias. With Bush ever-so-slightly ahead of Kerry in two and three way match ups, the New York Times put the story on A18. No surprise here.

But this poll is worth reviewing, despite its sponsors and limited coverage. In fact, there are several data nuggets within it that both camps are sure to be studying.

Here’s the quick download:

1. The Kerry bandwagon lost a wheel.

As most professionals have pointed out, the media coronation that Kerry enjoyed after eliminating John Edwards wasn’t going to last. True, the Bush campaign had to do the dirty work itself, but one way or the other Kerry’s free ride was going to end.

With Kerry’s head-to-head numbers falling back to a more reasonable range and with Bush holding his voting base, the CBS/New York Times survey showed reality in a 50-50 nation. The two candidates, when Nader is not included as a choice, are essentially tied–Bush 46 percent, Kerry 43 percent. These numbers are a far cry from data a few short weeks ago that showed Kerry with a modest lead.

While it is likely that the Bush television offensive is singularly responsible for this turnaround, it is interesting to note that Team Bush has not used any of their best hits against Kerry yet. In fact, they appear to be saving these for a later date and after they have established a general theme against their opponent.

2. Kerry is still mostly a blank slate, and the Bush campaign has a chalk warehouse.

Kerry’s image in the CBS/New York Times poll was 28 percent favorable and 29 percent unfavorable. Professionals refer to this as a 1-to-1 image ratio, and it’s not a sign of candidate strength. A stronger candidate in Kerry’s position would have a 2-to-1 image ratio closer to 36 percent favorable and 18 percent unfavorable. The data from the poll suggests that Kerry will have a difficult time winning the race on his own qualities.

Moreover, recent polling in Pennsylvania mirrors this data. In a survey conducted March 9-15 in the Keystone state by Quinnipiac University, Kerry’s image was 28 percent favorable and 27 percent unfavorable.

It’s also worth noting that only 57 percent of American voters in this survey had an opinion of Kerry. This suggests that Kerry is still a blank slate to just under half the voting population. This is very good news for Team Bush and points to why many, including Dick Morris, have strongly and publicly encouraged the Bush campaign to do all they can to define Kerry now.

The president’s team has the financial resources and a cash advantage on their opponent and all the evidence shows they’re going to use it to drive up Kerry’s negatives. The sooner the better.

The RNC at last check was sitting on roughly $30 million. One of the surprises at this juncture is that the RNC hasn’t been the tip of the spear in the assault on Kerry. But, it’s simply unimaginable that much of that $30 million won’t go to work defining Kerry in the very near future.

3.The warning signs for Kerry.

The first warning sign for Team Kerry is that 39 percent of survey respondents identify Kerry as liberal. This is important, because the Bush campaign has not overtly made that charge yet. They have not trotted out Kerry’s pristinely liberal vote ratings, his lockstep voting with Ted Kennedy, his votes against a balanced-budget amendment, or his votes against the death penalty for international terrorists who kill Americans. Kerry’s 39 percent liberal rating is a floor, not a ceiling.

The second warning sign is that 57 percent say Kerry is not someone “who says what he really believes rather than what people want to hear.” This is the Bush campaign’s initial charge in a nutshell and it appears to already be taking hold.

4. Team Kerry must pray for a heavily “wrong track” election.

All of the above suggests that John Kerry may not be a strong enough candidate to win the election on his own. In fact, the data suggests that he needs

(A) a negative political environment to pull down the president’s support and (B) to become a vessel of change in a change election.

The classic “right direction, wrong track” question has been used to gauge the electorate for many years now. Incumbents generally win in elections in which a majority of the voters think things are headed in the right direction. Challengers generally win in elections in which a majority of the voters think things are off on the wrong track. The CBS/New York Times survey found 38 percent of Americans saying things are headed in the right direction and 54 percent saying things are off on the wrong track. That’s not good for incumbents or President Bush.

But, any marginal improvement in the economy on the jobs front would most likely reduce the wrong track number and increase the president’s odds. And in fact there is significant evidence that the economy and the jobs deficit may be turning the corner. Just one example of this is Manpower’s recent survey of 16,0000 businesses showing that 28 percent of companies expect to hire in the second quarter and only 6 percent intend to cut jobs. Sadly, the Democrats and John Kerry thus find themselves in the unfortunate and awkward position of rooting against the American economy.

In fact, this data suggests that Team Kerry will follow its “pink slips and body bags” strategy of playing up layoffs and combat deaths. A strong economy and a better Iraq is a death knell for the Kerry campaign. It’s no exaggeration to say that they’re as afraid of good news as Dracula is of crosses and holy water.

Robert Moran is a vice president at Republican polling firm Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates. He is an NRO contributor.

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