Thus far, it has been a dream election cycle for the political engineers at Democratic national headquarters. Party elders designed the 2004 nominating process to be short, sweet, and decisive, and the results to date are exceeding expectations. An intense Demo-cratic race fought out in a highly compressed calendar has tilted the voting in the direction of the Establishment fave, John Kerry, while filtering out the insurgent, Howard Dean.
Small wonder, then, that the architect of the front-loaded primary process, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, is upbeat about what this huge outpouring of riled-up voters portends. "With record-breaking turnout in many of the first nine Democratic contests, one thing is clear," he says. "There is a surge among voters committed to removing George W. Bush from office."
Democratic partisans recite a litany of reasons why things are coming up roses for the November contest against Bush: the surging turnout, witheringly negative assessments of the Bush Presidency by Democrats and independents who have voted in their primaries, and some national surveys that show Kerry besting the Republican incumbent. Bush's approval ratings are sagging amid a jobless recovery, the controversy over U.S. failure to find the promised Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and bipartisan criticism of a budget plan that featured record deficits and billions in off-balance-sheet spending. Still, even though many Democrats are singing "bye-bye, Bush," they still have a long and potentially tough road ahead. Here's the reality check:
While primary turnout is running ahead of its pace in the tepid 2000 contest, it represents just a sliver of the overall voter pool. Only in New Hampshire, where a wide-open contest raged, has primary or caucus turnout set a record for the percentage of voters casting ballots, notes Curtis B. Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. In North Dakota, one of the states the DNC boasts about, just 2% of eligible voters showed up, Gans says. The 2004 Democratic turnout in South Carolina, Michigan, and Arizona was under 10% and lagged behind the GOP's primary tally in 2000, when Bush and Arizona Senator John McCain faced off. "This Democratic theory is not borne out by reality," says Bush campaign pollster Matthew Dowd.
NARROW CENTER. Even so, the enthusiasm of Democrats who have chosen to participate illustrates just how committed the party's core is to winning in November. In fact, partisans of both stripes are making up their minds earlier than ever before. An Associated Press/Ipsos poll conducted Feb. 2-4 found that just 18% of voters are still in doubt, 37% will definitely back Bush, and 43% say they're certain to vote Democratic. Thomas Riehle, president of Ipsos U.S. Public Affairs, says that the undecided voter pool usually doesn't shrink to 18% until after Labor Day. "But we are seeing it before President's Day," he says. "Both sides are fired up."
The result is the most deeply divided electorate political observers can recall -- and a much narrower center to fight over. "Politics at the national level has become more polarized, and there are fewer and fewer swing voters," says Andrew Hernandez, a political scientist at St. Mary's University. Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, who conducted 15 national surveys for his new book, The Two Americas: Our Current Political Deadlock and How to Break It, argues that each party can reliably depend on 46% of the vote, leaving just 8% up for grabs.
Polls show that most unaligned voters like Bush personally but have serious policy disagreements with him, ranging from his social conservatism to his spotty economic stewardship and the volatile situation in Iraq. Among the most coveted swing constituencies are working moms, middle-aged Latino men, young suburban adults, and baby boomer investors. They also can be regional niche constituencies in key states, such as Hmong immigrants in Minnesota, West Virginia steelworkers, Iowa ethanol producers, and snowmobile owners in Wisconsin.
All that will matter as the two parties target these small swing groups. "Every decision you make is important," says Bush pollster Dowd. "In a race that is basically dead even, moving one [demographic] group one-half of a percent, or targeting the right states, becomes much more important."
LONG LINES. And that points to another potential stumbling block for the Dems come November. Fueling Kerry's momentum during the primaries is the growing perception among loyal Democrats that he is the only choice who is capable of beating Bush in the general election. The problem, though, is that conservative Democrats and independents could be won over to the Bush camp once they more closely examine Kerry's stance on such hot-button issues as gay rights, flag-burning, and military spending. Of course, the Dems could also win centrist votes over Bush's record on jobs and his my-way-or-the-highway foreign policy.
Given the intensity of feelings about George Bush, both negative and positive, pollsters are predicting the longest lines at the polls since 1992, when 61% of eligible voters turned out to give Bush's father the boot. That's why both parties will be going all out to win over the all-important but rapidly shrinking center.
By Richard S. Dunham