Slowly but surely, John Kerry is eating into George W. Bush’s post-RNC lead. Yesterday, in fact, brought the first poll since August with Kerry in the lead, albeit by a statistically insignificant one percent.
Poll results vary widely, depending on the method used to normalize demographic groups and identify “likely” voters. The same polling consortium (Investors Business Daily/Christian Science Monitor) showed just a 3-point Bush lead after the convention, which is a lot less than the 12-point lead that Gallup and some other polls showed. It will take a lot more than just one poll to persuade anybody that Kerry actually has lead.
In the meantime, Kerry is fighting a perception of inevitability. Recent New York Times and Washington Post polls show that around 60% of voters — regardless of whom they personally favor — expect Bush to win a second term. The perception of being a loser infects a campaign like cancer. As Howard Kurtz puts it in today’s Washington Post online:
It’s not just who’s ahead—most of all the in Key Battleground States—but who people think is going to win.
By that measure, the election is a runaway…
Why does this matter? For one thing, it means Kerry hasn’t really gotten over the threshold. If people don’t think he’s got a real shot at winning, it depresses interest in the election and means they spend less time, if any at all, trying to envision him as commander-in-chief. That, in turn, makes it harder for him to reduce the stature gap that any challenger faces against an incumbent.
Also affected is the conventional wisdom in the press. Every story about Kerry is framed in some way by him being behind in the polls. By October, you might start seeing pieces about which of Bush’s Cabinet members would stick around in 2005, or whether the president will get serious about tax simplification. That sends a subtle message as well: Kerry is looking like a long shot.
So Kerry not only has to catch up (to the degree these volatile polls show him behind), but has to be perceived as catching up. Which is why the media zeitgeist after the first debate will be so important, because it will affect the other debates as well.
Kurtz goes on to remind us what happened after Kerry’s surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses. He became the instant favorite in all of the other state races (and eventually won nearly all of them), simply because swing voters like to go with a winner.
So while Kerry gradually gnaws away at Bush’s lead, an aura of inevitability still surrounds Bush’s re-election, which in turn depresses the turnout the Democrats so desperately need if they are to capture the White House.