John Kerry has an unprecedented political problem as his hour of acceptance arrives in Boston. It’s an intensity deficit among his supporters so severe it explains a lot about his surrogates’ behavior at the Democratic convention this week. Failure to address the issue represents a ticking time bomb that could detonate weeks before the election.
Unlike President Bush, whose supporters overwhelmingly stand behind him, a large chunk of Kerry voters are more interested in “defeating President Bush” than in electing the Massachusetts senator. It is no coincidence that Kerry convention organizers are working overtime to tamp down this overt Bush hatred and trying to transform it into pro-Kerry energy.
This finding is consistent with my own polling, as well as the results of other public surveys. Addressing the problem is one of the challenges for the presumptive nominee this week. He has to channel a tidal wave of Bush hatred among Democrats–perhaps the key challenge of his speech to the delegates and the viewing public on Thursday night.
The polling results are striking. When I asked Bush voters if they were voting “for George Bush” or “against John Kerry,” they overwhelmingly say they are “for” Bush (82 percent). Only 14 percent say they are voting “against Kerry.”
Kerry voters are more conflicted, showing less intensity for their man and a lot of negativity toward Bush. Only 59 percent say they are voting “for Kerry,” while a whopping 40 percent say they are voting “against Bush.” (The poll was conducted July 15-18 of 800 registered voters with a 3.5 percent margin of error).
Pew Center polls have asked this same question for the past four presidential contests (are you voting for your preferred candidate or against his opponent?). They show a similar spread. Moreover, Bush voters show the highest level of positive support since Pew has been conducting these surveys, while Kerry supporters show the highest level of “voting against” the opponent since they have been asking the question.
Why does this matter? Political operatives tell me this “intensity asymmetry” could haunt Kerry as the election approaches. For example, in 1996, Pew Research found 47 percent of Dole voters said they were voting “for Bob Dole” and 47 percent said they were casting a ballot “against Bill Clinton.” “A couple of weeks before the election in 1996, when the polls showed Bob Dole behind, many of his supporters who were ‘against Bill Clinton as opposed to for Bob Dole’ decided the election was lost and just stayed home. His campaign lacked positive, pro-Dole energy. It was all anti-Clinton,” a campaign consultant familiar with the race told me.
John Kerry risks the same fate. That’s why convention planners and Kerry campaign staff are working so hard to change the dynamic from “anti-Bush” to “pro-Kerry.”
Clearly his speech Thursday could have an impact on those attitudes. Changing that dynamic is John Kerry’s challenge.
–Gary Andres is vice chairman of policy and research at the Dutko Group Companies in Washington, D.C., and holds a Ph.D. in public policy from the University of Illinois-Chicago.