Why History Favors Kerry

Incumbents running neck-and-neck with their rivals at this stage of a campaign tend to be losers. Has September 11 changed the rules?

By Bruce Nussbaum

As the Democratic National Convention opens in Boston, the party's nominee, John Kerry, is in a "strong position" to win the November election, according to International Strategy & Investment (ISI), a money-management group specializing in economic and policy research. It notes that only two recent Presidential incumbents were behind in the polls at the start of the conventions -- and both lost.

In 1976, Ford was behind Carter by 17 points, and in 1980, Carter was behind Reagan by 3 points, according to the Gallup polls taken as the first conventions got under way. And most polls are showing incumbent George Bush trailing slightly against Kerry in head-to-head matchups, although the margin of error leaves them less than definitive.

STRANGE TIMES.

  Bush's father had a seven-point lead against Clinton in 1992, but he lost. Why? "Usually, challengers pick up a disproportionate share of undecideds over the course of a campaign," ISI argues. "In the past, a challenger who's ahead of even or just even with the incumbent President just before his convention is well-positioned to win in the November election."

Small wonder Kerry's campaign is feeling pretty good as delegates gather in Beantown. But let's not forget: These are strange times, and history may not repeat itself. For one, this is the most polarized election in modern history. Most people have already made up their minds, and the normal "bounce" that candidates get from their conventions among independents and fence-sitters may not be there for Kerry. Not many "undecideds" may be out there.

Then there's September 11 and what effect it will have on voters.  It certainly changed the historical pattern in 2002, when the midterm election added to the seat count of the President's party. In the past, the governing party usually lost seats.

RHETORICAL MUSCLE.

  At the very least, Kerry is going to have to give one whopper of a speech on July 29, convincing whoever remains to be convinced that he can be a credible President when it comes to combating terrorism and dealing with a dangerous world.

That probably explains why all the Kerry/Edwards campaign banners and insignias at the Boston convention feature the word "strong" in them. If Kerry can get that message across, then history suggests he's going to win.

For more on the Democratic National Convention, see BusinessWeek Online's continuing coverage at www.businessweek.com/election2004.htm

Nussbaum is editorial page editor for BusinessWeek

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