By Mark Mellman - 11/02/04 12:00 AM EST
You, dear reader, have the advantage over me. I am writing this Sunday, before the election takes place. The opportunities for me to look foolish are legion. So I will resist both predictions and triumphalism.
For months, though, I’ve been assessing President Bush’s vulnerability, but win or lose, it is important to acknowledge the daunting challenge Sen. John Kerry faces.
Republicans have been spinning this fact for months and they are right.
First, we simply do not defeat an incumbent president in wartime. After wars surely, but never in their midst. Republicans have been spinning this fact for months, and they are correct.
Democrats have spoken often and powerfully about the nation’s economic problems. But by historical standards, they are not that bad. The “misery index” is 7.8 today but was 20.5 when Jimmy Carter was defeated. Economic models of elections show Bush winning 52-58 percent of the vote.
One could simply suggest that the models are off, but there is more to it than that.
These models essentially confirm that the level of economic pain we are now feeling is not commensurate with voting an incumbent president out of office.
Unemployment and inflation are lower than they have been when incumbents have been defeated. Growth is higher than it has been when presidents have been tossed out of office.
The war in Iraq is obviously hurting Bush, but some of these models also incorporate casualty figures as a proxy for war. These models tend to suggest that Bush should win by a large margin. Nearly 50,000 killed in Vietnam did not prevent Nixon’s reelection.
Bush’s approval ratings are also indicative of the difficulties Kerry faces. It is certainly true that the average incumbent who has been reelected has had a much higher job approval rating — 62 percent. Bush’s approval rating is now about 49 percent. Yet the last time an incumbent was beaten — Bush’s father — just 33 percent approved of his performance. When Carter was defeated, he had an approval rating of only 37 percent. On average, incumbents who have been defeated have only had a 38 percent job rating. Bush is 10 points higher than that.
We often point to the fact that a majority of Americans say the country is seriously off on the wrong track. Fifty-two percent hold that view. But when Bush Sr. was defeated, 72 percent thought the country was seriously off on the wrong track.
Only 39 percent give the economy a positive rating, a problem for the incumbent.
Yet in 1992, only about 10 percent were positive about the economy.
Taking all that and more into account, an expert forecasting model suggests that Bush will get 51.6 percent of the two-party vote.
So while Bush faces formidable obstacles, not the least of which is Kerry himself, the senator also faces a strong candidate. Bush is weaker than some other incumbents but much stronger than those who have been defeated.
You soon will know whether Kerry’s appeal was strong enough to overcome the incumbent’s strength. I think I will be smiling broadly. But it has been an uphill fight.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry this year.