Politics & Policy

Dowdy Expectations

What is the Bush campaign doing to prevent a 15-point shortfall in August?

Am I the only person in America who noticed that the chief strategist of the Bush-Cheney campaign, Matt Dowd, inadvertently predicted Bush’s loss to John Kerry in his e-mail memo to party insiders on Tuesday?

In that memo–no doubt crafted to lower expectations–Dowd matter of factly predicts, based on his analysis of past Gallup surveys, that Bush may well be 15 points behind John Kerry at the beginning of August. No, I didn’t make this up. Dowd’s e-mail includes a link to the Bush-Cheney website that has a chart showing Bush losing to Kerry 55.5 percent to 40 percent at the beginning of August.

I learned as chief pollster for Senator Bob Dole’s presidential campaign in 1996 that historical analyses and predictions are a double-edged sword–they often come back to bite you. Remember the pundits in ‘96 who said that based on historical voting trends, a GOP presidential candidate wouldn’t lose either Arizona or Florida? Well, we lost both of those states, defying historical trends, and made more than our fair share of mistakes along the way. But we never inadvertently stated that our candidate was going to lose–despite what we knew.

I understand that Dowd and company want to set expectations low, but isn’t a prediction of a 15-point shortfall in August a bit over the top? Won’t even Bush’s most ardent supporters see the race as lost if he is down by 15 percent at that point? Worse still, Dowd is predicting this a month before he thinks it will actually happen, and yet he doesn’t offer a plan to combat it!

But the most troubling of all is that if you follow the historical “path” down which Dowd travels to reach his prediction, additional precedents spell doom for the Bush campaign:

‐ Post 1960, no modern incumbent president of either party has ever been behind by 15 points at the beginning of August of an election year and won. In fact, none have been behind ten points and come back.

‐A Gallup analysis of incumbent “bounces” after their conventions from 1964 to 1996 shows only a positive 5.6-point bounce–leaving President Bush on the losing end of the election, if Dowd’s prediction is correct. (Source: “Average Convention ‘Bounce’ Since 1964 is Six Points,” by Lydia Saad, Gallup News Service, July 26, 2000)

So I’m scratching my head wondering why the campaign would release an analysis that leads seasoned political reporters and analysts down a “path” that spells disaster for their candidate.

Moreover, if Dowd’s prediction of a 15-point Kerry lead becomes a reality, the party faithful will probably be wondering what I am wondering: If you seriously think this is going to happen, what are you doing to stop it?

A recent New York Times article quotes GOP “insiders” who claim that the Bush campaign’s strategy is to let Kerry “have” the month of July on the assumption that Bush will come roaring back in August. The reasoning is that Kerry can’t spend beyond the $75 million he will get once he accepts the Democratic nomination, whereas Bush can continue to spend his primary money through the end of August.

But my question is, why let the campaign get itself into a 15-point hole? Why would you knowingly allow yourself to get that far behind if you didn’t have to? If the Bush campaign has a “cash on hand” advantage over Kerry, why not use it in both July and August to try to suppress the surge campaign strategists believe Kerry is going to get?

Let’s face it: In an intensely polarized American electorate, a 15-point Kerry lead would not only signal a near collapse of Bush’s electoral coalition, but it would mean Kerry had gotten the endorsement of virtually every undecided voter in America. And what does this say about the nearly $100 million the Bush team spent “defining” Kerry? If this 15-point Kerry lead was or is inevitable, was all that money wasted? And if that $100 million wasn’t wasted, why wouldn’t you continue blasting Kerry during both July and August?

Clearly this analysis and prediction begs more questions–troublesome questions for the Bush team–than it answers.

If the Bush campaign is really being honest in its belief that based on history it will be 15 points behind John Kerry come the beginning of August, then it must also own up to the further historical fact that no modern-day incumbent president has ever come back from a 10-point deficit-not to speak of a 15-point deficit-to win.

In the meantime, I’m going to join every other Republican in hoping Matt Dowd is way off base on his prediction. If he isn’t, all we can do is pray that the Bush team comes up with a brilliant strategy to combat the Kerry surge.

Tony Fabrizio served as chief pollster in Sen. Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. His firm has worked for many U.S. Senators, Congressmen and statewide office holders. It also works domestically and internationally for Fortune 500 companies.

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