Man Without Qualities

Sunday, August 08, 2004

An Equation

TIME magazine's article on its recent poll begins with this sentence, which ought to reflect an amazing equation in the TIME writer's mind, but is actually ridiculously predictable:

Just as the Democratic Party convention gave the Kerry campaign very little "bounce" in the polls, so have last week's elevated terror alerts had only limited impact on an electorate already largely decided, according to the latest TIME poll.

For TIME, equation of a major party's political convention with a terrorist alert seems perfectly natural. The Democratic convention was presented, of course, as a huge partisan rhetorical display arguing that John Kerry should be elected in the fall. There's nothing wrong with that - it's what a political convention is supposed to be.

But the administration has not presented the terror alert as reflecting badly on the Democratic contender, or as somehow supporting the re-election of the incumbent. Rather, the alert was presented by the administration as apolitical and as well-founded. That the terror alert is well-founded has apparently been borne out by reported facts so far notwithstanding irresponsible attempts by some of the loonier operatives on the Democratic side and in the media to cast the alert as a political scam (a position disavowed by Senator Kerry himself). If anything, the poll shows that the explicit arguments against the administration advanced by some Democrats and media representatives on the basis of the alert have not had the effect the people presenting those arguments desired.

Any supposed advantage the administration and Mr. Bush would gain from the terror alerts is therefore essentially implicit - based essentially entirely, as TIME puts it, on voters tendency to see Bush as the stronger candidate on dealing with terrorism. Why would an administration willing to abuse the nation's awareness of terrorist plots stop short of actually arguing explicitly for the same position that such loonier Democrats and media representatives explicitly argue against? Explicit aguments advanced by strong Bush partisans, such as Rush Limbaugh, reach only the Republican choir. Other media, Fox News for example, have not explicitly advanced any explicit argument against Senator Kerry on the basis of the alerts - either as news or commentary. And the Wall Street Journal editorial on the subject limited its critcism to those Democrats attempting to cast the alert as a scam but did not argue that the alerts (or underlying threats that were their subject) militate against Democrats generally or a President Kerry (except to the extent Senator Kerry hasn't told the loonier members of his party to quiet down in their irresponsible accusations):

Joe Lieberman has, as usual, been warning the Democrats away from the fever swamps here, saying nobody "in their right mind" would believe that President Bush would "scare people for political reasons." And John Kerry has at least been smart enough to stay above the fray. But the Democratic contender would probably be wise to actively rein in the likes of Howard Dean, who was still rambling conspiratorially as of Wednesday night. Speculation about the timing of arrests and the motives for terror warnings doesn't do anything to reassure voters that the Democratic Party is serious about protecting them. We're pretty sure most Americans see the latest blows to al Qaeda as unalloyed good news, even if some of the credit has to go to the Bush Administration.

Bush skeptics have adduced exactly zero evidence of political motivation for the alert other than the paranoid-flavored, all purpose "suspicious timing" riff and the assertion (since discredited) that the alert was based totally on "old information." And the timing is not suspicious. Why choose the August news doldrums for a phony or abusive terror alert, a time of year when few voters even connect with explicit political arguments and many fewer are going to be sitting around performing the political algebra necessary to make an implicit connection. Why not wait until, say, September or even October - and really martial all of the justifications for presentation to the public right off? After all, a political scam can be prepared at the scammer's leisure - there was no need to leave that "old information" argument that some skeptics at first seized on lying around for skeptics to use. Why not bring out the new stuff right away? A later and more serious alert would give skeptics less time to check out and argue against the basis of the alert.

Surely an administration as corrupt as the skeptics insinuate would be happy to present whatever evidence exists supporting the alert, and not trouble themselves with fear of compromising national security or confidential sources by revealing sensitive intelligence. In sum, neither the timing nor basis for the alerts is at all "suspicious." To the extent people are paying attention, I think they know that - which is why Mr. Bush has not been harmed by the irresponsible media/Democratic arguments.

TIME finds its equation completely natural, not even warranting an explanation: [Democratic Convention consisting entirely of explicitly partisan arguments] = [non-partisan, apparently factually supported, terror alert unaccompanied by partisan rhetoric]. The TIME article reveals a lot more about what goes on at TIME than what's going on in the electorate.

The TIME poll shows Kerry-Edwards leading among likely voters by a margin of 48% to 43%, with Ralph Nader running at 4%. Kerry's lead in this poll immediately before the Democratic Convention was slightly smaller: 46% - 43%, with Nader at 5%.

There are some additional points to note in connection with this poll and TIME article. It is a "likely voter" poll. That might increase or decrease its accuracy. The good thing about "likely voter" calculations is that if the methodology for screening "likely voters" from "registered voters" is sound, the poll's accuracy goes up. But an unsound methodology has the reverse effect. For example, the pre-California-governor-recall polls taken for the Los Angeles Times were apparently rendered much less accurate than the data collected could have produced because the pollsters inaccurately (and unjustifiably) decided certain groups would or would not turn out heavily. TIME's polls frequently have symptoms of such poor massaging. This poll was conducted by Schulman, Ronca, & Bucuvalas Public Affairs - an respectable shop. But essentially nothing about the poll methodology has been revealed.

This TIME poll is not wildly out of sync with some others, but it is worth noting that the Rasmussen tracking poll shows President Bush obtaining a 1% national lead today, with Kerry-Edwards holding a lead of 1% in Pennsylvania - down from a 5% lead a month ago. Similarly, the President is leading by increasing margins in most polls in Ohio - a state subject to forces (economic, of course) similar to those at play in Pennsylvania. To my eye, the striking inconsistency among many polls suggests that there are lots of voters open to persuasion. But TIME resorts to what seems to me to be the increasingly silly argument that there is a dearth of persuadable voters, even though its own poll is saying otherwise:

Most voters this year appear to have chosen early, and are unmoved by events - at least for now. Only 3% of likely voters currently report being undecided, but there's still some wiggle room - a further 17% of "decideds" say that they could change their mind before election day.

So one fifth of voters respond that they are open to changing their minds or have not made up their minds. That's a lot of persuadable voters. How many does one need? Nor am I convinced that the media's now-standard presentation of the election as dependent on certain "battlefield states" is based on sound surmise. Ohio and Pennsylvania are supposed to be key battlefield, even leaning to Kerry-Edwards as the result mostly of adverse developments in manufacturing employment. But consider this:

Workers in the [San Francisco] Bay Area are the most pessimistic in the nation, with 27 percent worried about losing their job, according to a July survey by staffing firm Hudson Highland Group. Only 18 percent of workers nationwide share that fear. Santa Clara County ? which comprises San Jose and the corporate hubs of Cupertino and Palo Alto ? has lost 231,000 jobs since the peak of the dot-com bubble in December 2000, according to a recent report from San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales. By contrast, the entire state of Ohio has lost about 200,000 jobs in the same period. .... Seattle, Boston, Denver and Austin, Texas — all of which attracted technology companies during the boom — also are facing longer and sharper busts than cities with more diversified economies, said Creighton University professor Ernie Goss. "Cutting-edge tech hubs have to reinvent themselves every cycle," said Goss, a scholar-in-residence at the Congressional Budget Office studying the economic impact of technology.

That kind of effect might help to explain why the incumbent is doing better in "old economy" places such as Ohio and Pennsylvania than the media-favored model would predict.

Every year since taking office, Mr. Bush has followed a curious pattern: During July and August he has allowed the media to spread the message that he is in trouble and/or out of touch. Sometimes he takes what the media is allowed to present as an "overly long vacation" at Crawford. Administration responses to the news cycle seem to become more sluggish. His polls soften. And his critics lose sight of the fact that it's all happening in the late-July-August news doldrums. This year, the entire "softening-sluggish" effect is intensified by the President's personal ongoing campaigning and reports that he intends to spend a lot of money on August political ads - which may be running somewhere by are definitely not visible in Southern California.

Then comes September - and each year Mr. Bush suddenly seems to have been in control all along. Will that happen this time around? If the economy softens, it will be a lot harder for him. But the administration's critics have been allowed to make much more of those July employment numbers than is warranted. The August employment numbers will be coming out right after the Republican Convention. With the polls where they are - even the Fox News poll interestingly shows Mr. Bush down more than he was - there is lots of room for post-Convention "bounce" - and, as Kerry-Edwards discovered, with "bounce" comes that all-important "momentum." Of course, we don't know that the August numbers will revise that 32,000 new-payroll-jobs number (even though the household survey showed a whopping 639,000 new jobs in July). And we don't know that the August numbers will be good.

But we do know that there will be lots of opportunity for Mr. Bush to present lots of positive new information and proposals in the New York shee-bang. And while the domestic economy will continue to dominate the election (TIME even notes that in its poll), it is also important the texture of news from Iraq has changed. For example, it is now interim Prime Minister Aida Allawiwho who tells the Shiite militants to lay down their weapons in the war-shattered city of Najaf - not an American (although the American military is still fighting). The effect of the turn-over in Iraq has been to make the news - even the bad news - from Iraq more remote, more like (but, with US soldiers still in Iraq, not completely like) reports of what is happening in the Sudan, for example. Herr Doktorprofessor Paul Von Krugman noted the effect, applying his customary alarmist, unprofessional paranoia:

[A]fter June 28. Iraq stories moved to the inside pages of newspapers, and largely off TV screens. Many people got the impression that things had improved.

Of course, things have improved in Iraq, and they are continuing to improve. But Herr Doktorprofessor is right to be alarmed about the erosive political consequences of the shift. Even when things kick up in Iraq (as with the most recent Najaf fighting) there just isn't the same kind of negative media coverage directed at the administration, in large part because the Iraq interim government is doing the talking. Iraq is receding as an election issue. That will likely to continue right up to election day.

And even at the end of this month there probably won't be a nimbus of prominent Iraq-fussing stories directed at the administration that the Democrats had hoped for. That should leave even more room for post-Convention "bounce." Of course, Mr. Bush still has to perform well at that Convention and get the right messages out. But at this point it sure looks like he's making a fine job of preparing to do just that. In the past September has been his month.

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