For months, the official line from Republicans, echoing a point made by presidential pollster Matthew Dowd, has been that President Bush would be tied with or behind the Democratic nominee for most of the year. This state of affairs could be expected to persist until around Labor Day.
The promulgation of this theory has had the advantage of reducing expectations for Bush. It probably kept Republican panic from reaching dangerous levels during January, February, and early March. Taken seriously, however, it should worry Republicans. Would the Republican base really be able to sustain a half-year during which Bush lags behind Kerry? Or would the idea of a Kerry presidency become sufficiently familiar to conservatives that it would no longer inspire the alarm necessary to motivate them to vote? One can easily imagine conservatives’ deciding, after several months in which it looked as though Bush were going to lose, to concentrate on congressional races instead of the presidential race. A few weeks ago, columnist Robert Novak reported that some Washington Republicans were beginning to murmur that this emphasis might be a good idea. (They are wrong, by the way, if Republicans are generally correct about the war on terrorism and Democrats are not. Congress can do many things, but it cannot conduct that war.)
There is another danger: that the Bush campaign would become complacent about lagging behind Kerry for months on the theory that it was all part of the grand plan. If weaknesses were left unaddressed until Labor Day, it might by then prove too late to do anything about them.
Some of the pessimism of winter seems to be melting now. Republican operatives close to the campaign say that they are surprised at how well Bush is doing. They expect him to do even better as the fact that jobs are being created begins to sink in. (They remain worried about events in Iraq.)
I would not at all be surprised if Bush gains a lead on Kerry soon–and the Dowd line is abandoned. The country is pretty evenly divided on a lot of questions, but that fact does not preclude an election being essentially decided early (as the 1996 election was).
If a Bush lead opens, expect another piece of conventional wisdom to come under scrutiny: the notion that this election will necessarily “be close” as well as “go down to the wire.” I see no reason in principle to rule out the possibility that Bush will win with 53 to 54 percent of the vote. Since nobody has won an absolute majority of the popular vote for president since 1988, that would be a landslide.