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The election that won't budge

The Democratic convention may defy history and not give Kerry a big bounce - a sign of how settled the electorate is.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 20, 2004



WASHINGTON

At next week's Democratic convention, Sen. John Kerry will reintroduce himself to millions of Americans, put forward his vision for the country, and generally dominate the national spotlight for four consecutive days.

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He will also attempt to shake up the dynamics of a race that has remained, almost from the beginning, locked in stalemate. Political conventions often provide candidates with their biggest bounce of the campaign: In 2000, Al Gore kissed Tipper onstage and improved his poll standing by eight points. In 1992, Bill Clinton entered his convention in third place and shot ahead by a record 16 points (helped by Ross Perot's temporary departure from the race).

Even Michael Dukakis gained a seven-point bump in 1988. But if the pattern of the current campaign holds, Kerry may have a harder time than his predecessors in generating a significant postconvention bounce.

So far, to a remarkable extent, the 2004 race has proven nearly impervious to external events - whether positive or negative. Kerry's selection of John Edwards as his running mate, for example, was well received by Democrats, but did not give the Massachusetts senator much lift in the polls. Weeks of bad news out of Iraq left more Americans questioning the war and the general direction of the country, but hardly budged the presidential horse race numbers.

Why that lack of bounce

This seemingly frozen campaign stems in large part from a polarized electorate: Polls show the vast majority of Americans are firmly behind one candidate or the other, with far fewer undecided voters than in previous elections. As a result, pollsters say, any postconvention swings in the race - both for Kerry and President Bush - are likely to be relatively small, and at the margins.

"There just isn't the elasticity this year that there is normally," says independent pollster John Zogby.

Republicans argue that the tight nature of the race also points to voters' lingering uncertainty - and even negative attitudes - toward Kerry. Even after a series of difficult weeks for the White House, in which President Bush had to contend with ongoing violence in Iraq and the release of reports documenting intelligence failures in the run-up to war, Kerry has not managed to convince voters that he would do a better job. Many Republicans argue the convention represents Kerry's last shot at making his pitch and moving the electorate in a significant way.

"He could not have had a more favorable political environment than he had in May and early June, and he did absolutely nothing with it," says Republican pollster David Winston. "If he doesn't get a bounce out of [the convention], he's in real trouble."

Mr. Winston contends that the electorate is more moveable than it is often portrayed, and that the main reason Kerry has not been able to capitalize on the unfavorable environment for Bush is because he has already been defined in negative terms, as a liberal and a flip-flopper, in the minds of many potential swing voters.

"His [unfavorable ratings] are much more real than the Kerry campaign will admit," Winston says.

Democrats counter that Kerry has survived an onslaught of negative advertising from the Bush campaign, and managed to remain essentially tied - a stronger position than most challengers have held, historically.

Moreover, some analysts say it's mostly Republicans who hold negative views of Kerry, and that while those voters may now be strongly opposed to Kerry, they were never likely to vote for him, anyway.

"The Bush campaign spent $80 million basically to give people who were already going to vote for him reasons not to vote for Kerry," says independent pollster Dick Bennett.

At the same time, polls indicate the Massachusetts senator remains unknown to many voters: As much as one-third of voters say they do not know enough about Kerry to form an opinion one way or the other. This finding may not reflect well on Kerry's ability to sell his candidacy, given the amount of money his campaign has already spent running biographical ads. But it may mean he still has a chance to grow his support.

Sharpening Kerry's image

The goal of the convention, say Democrats, is not necessarily to move poll numbers, but to present voters with a clearer image of who Kerry is and what he stands for.

"You're not trying to win the general election in the convention," says Democratic strategist Jenny Backus. "You're trying to solidify a view of the candidate in the voters' minds."

But that doesn't mean that the resulting bounce - or lack thereof - won't matter when it comes to shaping perceptions of the race. Moreover, since Kerry's convention comes first, the effects for him might be magnified. A swing in Kerry's favor would be interpreted as a significant shift, and could reconfigure the race for weeks, at least until the Republican convention comes at the end of August. But no bounce could be interpreted as a sign of fundamental weakness in Kerry's candidacy.

The expectations game

Needless to say, both sides are doing their best to set expectations: A few weeks ago, Bush strategist Matthew Dowd released a memo arguing that, based on historical trends, Kerry ought to emerge from the convention with a 15-point lead. Kerry pollster Mark Mellman responded with a memo arguing Kerry might not gain any postconvention bounce at all, since the bounce typically reflects the consolidation of the party's base - something that has already happened for both sides this year.

The reality may wind up somewhere in between. Mr. Zogby says he expects Kerry's bounce to be "under five - if it's that high." But in the current electoral environment, a five-point bounce may be worth much more than usual: "It would be huge," Zogby says.

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