Sabato's Crystal Ball

Kerry’s Nader and Bush’s Nadir

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics March 17th, 2004

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What a difference a letter makes: E or I. John Kerry has to contend with Ralph Nader in November, and even in his diminished political state, it is possible that the longtime consumer advocate will make a difference in the election. Still, the Crystal Ball guesses that Nader will receive less than 1 percent of the national vote when the 2004 ballots are cast — a far cry from the 2.7 percent Nader achieved in 2000. Thus, Kerry’s ’04 problem is perhaps a third of Al Gore’s ’00 problem, now that Democrats and liberal Independents understand that Nader could produce Dubya II as he arguably helped to produce Dubya I. (Should Nader get the Green Party endorsement this summer, his likely November vote proportion will increase, and we’ll revisit the topic then.) From the perspective of March, Nader is probably manageable for John Kerry, as electoral difficulties go.

Not so for George W. Bush’s nadir. Bush’s ratings have come crashing down to earth, headed for basement level, in the first quarter of 2004. The president is at the nadir of his administration, viewed from the perspective of public popularity. Bush-bashing by all the Democrats and the press has taken a toll, as has the dismal jobs picture. Do you think the president ever daydreams about deriving a little pleasure from the pain of consistent mis-predictions by his team, perhaps by calling all his economic advisers into the Oval Office and firing them one by one? He could go to the Rose Garden and announce he had outsourced their jobs – say, to Ohio. His popularity would soar, at least briefly, and who could blame him for banishing these dismal scientists whose forecasting records are worse than the most inaccurate meteorologists?

Like father, like son, and the painfully slow recovery from the 2001 recession, similar to the 1991 recession, now seriously threatens to create yet another One-Term Bush. History is so rich with irony! Here’s another: The Bush/Cheney administration is supposedly in bed with Big Oil, yet the dramatic rise in gasoline prices at just the wrong time is adding to Bush’s woes. Where are your friends when you need them? And wouldn’t Bush be better off calling all the businesspeople showering his reelection committee with big donations, and asking them to keep the money and hire a few dozen extra Americans instead?

But we digress.

Here are George W. Bush’s main weaknesses, the cause of his current dramatic slump in the polls which has him at best even with John Kerry and more likely a half-dozen percentage points behind:

As the incumbent, Bush is the focus of the race, though he will try to put the spotlight on Kerry’s main weaknesses:

The Bush campaign is counting on 1) the economy picking up just in time; 2) memories of 9/11 and Bush’s leadership in the war against terror; 3) a rock-solid Southern base (they hope); and the $100+ million they have to spend to define Kerry before the Democratic Convention in July. Maybe. But Bush had better get his groove back, and soon. Fortuna has deserted him, and he desperately needs some old-fashioned luck, especially on the economy. (There is little wrong with the Bush candidacy that cannot be cured by several months of consistently high employment reports for good-paying jobs.)

Moreover, Bush has little margin for error, even after three years of hard political work. If the president has expanded his base, the Crystal Ball can’t see it on the Electoral College map. Just as in 2000, Bush isn’t even in the ballgame in the giant states of California, New York, and Illinois. (Do people in the White House really believe what they are saying about the Golden State? Are they really going to waste $10-20 million again on a hopeless cause?) Kerry landslides are coming in all three states, and in New Jersey, too. Kerry is likely to carry Michigan and Pennsylvania as well, just as Gore did easily in 2000. Once again, only New Hampshire looks competitive in the entire Northeast – and Bush could lose it this time. The two largest states which are currently highly competitive are both Bush’s states from 2000: Florida and Ohio. Should Bush lose either one, our bet is that he loses reelection. Are there any Gore 2000 states within reach for Bush this time around? Just three: New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin, with an outside shot at Iowa and Minnesota. Realistically, Bush will be very lucky to win even two of these five states – and they don’t make up for the potential loss of an Ohio or a Florida. Then there are Nevada and West Virginia, Bush states in 2000 that are far from secure for 2004. And we haven’t even mentioned possible Kerry vice-presidential choices that could take a Bush state such as Indiana, Louisiana, or Missouri and make it a toss-up or worse. Since Bush is stuck with Cheney, who gives the president nothing electorally, Kerry has a “checkmate†move that Bush cannot even try to counter.

Yes, it’s early, and the election is in November, not in March. And true enough, Bush may get lucky again and put the election beyond reach. But we’ve had enough of the talk about how “Kerry has to run the table to win.” In the Crystal Ball’s view, it is George W. Bush who has to run the table to win a second term. And even if he runs the table, it is possible that, given likely Kerry landslides in California, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, and possibly all of New England, Bush could become the first president in American history to be elected twice without ever achieving a popular vote plurality.