Commentary: The Election: Watch These Indicators

How to cut through poll fatigue and gauge the candidates' real chances

Confused by conflicting polls? Worried that your favorite candidate for President has yet to put away his rival? Given the tightness of the election and the uncertainty over turnout, it's hard for even the most attentive voters to cut through the cacophony of spin, campaign blather, and last-minute scare tactics. With George W. Bush and John Kerry slogging toward the finish line -- while revving up the turnout machines that each hope will put them over the top -- here are some leading indicators that could help campaign-weary voters gain a sense of how the battle for the Presidency is faring:

THE POLLS THAT REALLY COUNT Forget about all the horse-race polls at this point: They're too volatile. Three key survey questions "tell us more about the results than the day-to-day tracking polls," says Catholic University political scientist John Kenneth White. And they have been reliable predictors of incumbent reelection for the past two decades. The incumbent went down to defeat when less than half of the electorate approved of the President's job performance or felt he deserved another term. Likewise, if a majority of voters say the country is heading in the wrong direction, it has been curtains for the President.

By those standards, Bush is on the precipice at the moment. His job approval in the 10 most recent polls averages 49.5% and is below 50% in 6 of the 10. And the mood of the country has been sour since early February. In one typical survey, an Oct. 11-14 George Washington University 2004 Battleground Poll found that 41% of voters say the country is on the right track and 52% say it's off-track. That's one reason the Bush campaign has been trying to whip voters into a patriotic frenzy in the closing weeks of the campaign.

WHAT'S IN A NUMBER? Government statistics can affect the psyche of the electorate, and two upcoming economic reports could be pivotal. On Oct. 22, the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases state employment data, and the focus is on two hotly contested states where manufacturing jobs have been disappearing during the Bush years: Ohio and Wisconsin. Bad job numbers would spell three successive months of rising unemployment in the Buckeye State -- more grim news for Bush. But if jobs are on the mend, the President could get a late lift.

Better macroeconomic news is more likely on Oct. 29 -- four days before the election -- when the Commerce Dept. releases third-quarter gross domestic product estimates. Economists are predicting solid gains, which could make voters feel more upbeat about the future. However, if growth fails to meet expectations, Democrats will argue that the economy is slowing dangerously, putting job creation at risk.

Bush badly needs a change in consumer confidence. For the first time since May, more Americans feel the economy is getting worse than think it's improving. A major factor: record-high oil prices, now hovering around $53 per barrel, have sent gasoline soaring back past $2 per gallon. That phenomenon, together with predictions of double-digit hikes in heating-oil prices, sends a chill through Bush operatives in the northern battlegrounds. Republicans are hoping for at least a temporary respite in price hikes by Halloween.

DEMOGRAPHY IS DESTINY While most voting blocs are predictably pro-Bush or pro-Kerry, a few groups remain up for grabs. And how they move in the final week of the campaign could be crucial. For Kerry to win, he needs to come close to Al Gore's 11-percentage-point advantage among women in 2000. But an Oct. 17-18 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll gave Bush a 47%-to-43% edge among likely female voters. "Women have gone back and forth," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. "Swing voters are still unsettled." Kerry's challenge: to reverse recent declines among less educated women and suburban moms.

The youngest and oldest voters will also be key. Kerry has slipped among under-30 voters, from a 2-to-1 advantage earlier this year to a 50%-46% edge in the ABC News/Washington Post survey. Older voters, meanwhile, split 47%-47%. Any shift among seniors could tip the dead-even states of Florida and Iowa. No wonder Kerry has been aggressively accusing Bush of having secret plans to privatize Social Security and reinstitute the military draft -- charges the White House dismisses as desperate flailing.

GET OUT YOUR VOTE One reason the polls are unreliable is that nobody knows how many people will actually vote. Democrats say the polls undercount their supporters because traditional survey techniques do not measure the intensity of anti-Bush feeling and the surge in new registrations. Indeed, some evidence indicates that the new wave of voters leans toward Kerry. An Oct. 14-15 Newsweek Poll found that first-time voters favored Kerry 57% to 36% and that people who had already voted early chose the Democrat, 52% to 43%.

Most political analysts say Democrats and their liberal allies did a more effective job registering voters. Their challenge is getting the newbies to the polls. And while most Democrats are united by antipathy for Bush, Republicans remain more charged up about their candidate. According to ABC, 59% of Bush partisans are strongly enthusiastic, compared with 45% of Kerry backers. Unless Democrats can better motivate their base, they could fall short.

WEIGHING THE INTANGIBLES Four years ago, Bush was thrown off stride in the final days of the campaign by revelations of a youthful drunken-driving arrest. Any seemingly innocuous fuss -- such as the anti-Kerry blowback over his comments on the sexual orientation of Dick Cheney's daughter -- could alter the equation this year as well.

Democrats are hoping to get mileage out of the flu-vaccine debacle, but it's not clear whether voters will blame the President for the failure of public health officials to develop backup plans. Then there is the possibility of big news from the war zone, which could range from a bloody insurgent attack to the triumphant capture of Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab al-Zarkawi. And, unfortunately, the ultimate wild card looms: an election-eve terrorist attack in the U.S.

Which factor will matter most in the end? If al Qaeda strikes, all bets are off. Otherwise, insiders figure that turnout will decide which candidate wins on Nov. 2. Both sides know they must do all they can to get their core loyalists to the polls in sufficient numbers to eclipse their shortcomings elsewhere. That's why an already harsh campaign season will get even uglier as Bush and Kerry duke it out until the bitter end.

By Rick Dunham

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