May 13, 2004

Polarization

In a segment called "Why Isn't Bush Losing?" in yesterday's Best of the Web, Taranto talks about the polarization of the electorate and the fight for the middle, undecided 20% or so, and makes this interesting observation:

It's not Bush vs. Kerry but Bush vs. anti-Bush. Our sense is that this bodes well for Bush.

Consider: Between 1972 and 1996, six incumbent presidents sought re-election. Three of them--Nixon, Reagan and Clinton--were polarizing figures, intensely loathed (for a variety of personal and ideological reasons) by partisans on the other side, but solidly supported by their own party. All three won.

The other three--Ford, Carter and the elder Bush--spurred much more tepid opposition from the other party (is the idea of a "Ford-hater" even imaginable?). But all three faced challenges for their own party nod, and Carter and Bush saw third-party candidates drain away their support in November. All three lost.

Bush is clearly in the Nixon-Reagan-Clinton mold rather than the Ford-Carter-Bush one. That doesn't mean he's a shoo-in, but the "anybody but Bush" vote is not going to be sufficient to carry Kerry to the White House. If you don't already hate George W. Bush, it's unlikely that you will develop such a passion between now and November.

Convention has it that when a president seeks re-election, the vote is a referendum on the incumbent. He might lose if voters see him as tainted by scandal (Ford), incompetent (Carter) or out of touch (Bush père). The challenger also has to convince voters of his own superior merits: Carter's honesty, Reagan's optimism, Clinton's compassion. The Dems may yet find a winning formula, but our sense is that "Bush is evil and Kerry served in Vietnam" won't do the trick.

Posted by dan at May 13, 2004 9:18 PM