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Not-So-Clear Politics

RealClearPolitics posted a commentary piece yesterday called “John Edwards and the Shrinking Battleground.” For those not familiar with it, RealClearPolitics is about as real and clear as FoxNews is fair and balanced. In other words, it’s a Republican site.

When John Kerry chose John Edwards as his running mate, RCP wrote:

While this pick may play well in the next three weeks I don’t know how well it is going to work after Labor Day when the real contest begins…The Edwards pick is a poll-driven mistake…This is a very serious election, and the Bush-Cheney campaign will make that abundantly clear. Kerry would have been better off with the safe, solid choice of Dick Gephardt who at least would have helped potentially win Missouri.

Two months later, RCP thinks it has a we-told-you-so moment:

Senator Edwards did give Kerry a little bounce… A week before Kerry’s VP announcement Bush was up about two points and a week after Edwards was chosen the Kerry/Edwards ticket had moved to roughly a three point lead. So Edwards delivered about a five point bounce that subsequently faded during the rest of July as Kerry headed into his convention in Boston.

But now we are in the middle of September, and you have to wonder just what John Edwards is bringing to the table. The contrast with Dick Cheney that all the pundits were atwitter about in early July suddenly doesn’t look so great from the Kerry perspective…

Because of the unwise choice of Edwards as a running mate, even if Kerry pulls back to even in the national polls his route to 270 electoral votes is a big problem — and almost impossible if he can’t win either Florida or Ohio. Had he chosen Gephardt and put Missouri into play, the Kerry campaign’s electoral math would look considerably kinder. Flipping Missouri alone would get Kerry over 270 EV’s, and flipping Missouri and New Hampshire would allow for the loss of New Mexico. Wining Missouri, New Hampshire and Nevada would have allowed Kerry to lose Wisconsin and still win the election.

Of course, it is not a sure thing that Gephardt would have been able to deliver Missouri. Given Gallup’s latest poll showing Bush ahead by fourteen, maybe even Dick Gephardt wouldn’t have been able to deliver his home state. But unlike North Carolina, Missouri is a much more competitive state for Democrats, and in a close election where Kerry had a chance to win, one would think Missouri with Dick Gephardt on the ticket would have been very much in play.

Instead, Kerry is stuck with a running mate who brings nothing except a pretty smile. The Kerry campaign had run a pretty darn good campaign through June, but starting with the Edwards choice, a wasted convention, an insane comment at the Grand Canyon and no answer to his Vietnam and antiwar past, Kerry has dug himself what may be an insurmountable hole.

Now, I have to admit that it’s unclear precisely what Edwards brings to the Democratic ticket, but you have to be suspicious of advice coming from a source that wants Kerry to lose. Most commentators — Democrat or Republican — thought Edwards was a superior choice to Gephardt. As RCP notes, it is far from certain that Gephardt would have delivered Missouri. He is popular only in his hometown of St. Louis; he is actually a mild liability elsewhere in the state. Gephardt also reminds people of the Humphrey-Mondale-Scoop Jackson style ultra-liberal Democrat that most of the country has long since resoundingly rejected.

RCP isn’t done second-guessing the strategy of the candidate it opposes. They chastise Kerry’s decision during the summer to put more states in play, saying:

Arizona, Colorado Louisiana and Virginia? It’s not complicated to figure out that if these states are close Bush is finished. So what was their strategy in spending time and money in states that they were only going to carry if they didn’t need them to win the election? Maybe they bought in to the conventional wisdom over the summer that Bush was in big, big trouble. Whatever the strategic rationale, it was a major mistake and a misallocation of resources.

With the wasted money and time in states they don’t have a prayer of carrying and a VP nominee that can’t make a difference in any state that will matter, the Kerry folks have boxed themselves into an electoral corner. So now they are not only staring at how they get this race back to even in the national polls but also how they are going to piece together the necessary 270 Electoral Votes.

But RCP ignores one critical fact. Because John Kerry was such a prodigious fundraiser during primary season, the campaign had money to burn during the summer. And given the “use-it-or-lose-it” rules that govern modern elections, Kerry had to spend the money, because after the convention he was limited to the $75 million cap that constrains all candidates that accept federal funding, as both Kerry and Bush are doing. Naturally, Kerry invested heavily in the main battleground states where RCP believes he should be focusing, but at some point those investments reach saturation, and a candidate needs to expand his appeal. (If you see a Bush add in the safe Kerry state of California — and you will — it’s the opposite coin of the same strategy.)

It is far from clear that Kerry’s “route to 270 electoral votes is a big problem.” The non-partisan daily political blog from ABC News, The Note, refers in today’s entry to “the semi-friendly contours of the Electoral College.” There are actually quite a few ways to get Kerry to 270.

In any event, although both candidates still have a lot of work to do, Kerry’s prospects aren’t as bleak as RCP would like us to believe. The latest national poll (jointly sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor and Investor’s Business Daily) has the race at a 46%–46% tie. Rasmussen Reports has also been showing the race essentially tied.

It will take a while to find out if the Bush convention bounce has truly faded, but it certainly looks like it has. That’s why they call them “bounces.”

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