Right now, Washington, D.C., is whipped into a frenzy over the upcoming presidential election. After every new poll, one side seems ready to declare victory. Six weeks ago, people felt the race was Sen. John Kerry’s to lose and he was about to run away with the election. Now, these same people claim there is no possible way for Kerry to beat incumbent George W. Bush. While I cannot claim to have a finger on the pulse of Yale’s current campus climate, my instincts and experience tell me the climate there is extremely similar.
As I write this, there are 43 days until the election, Kerry is trailing by an average of six to seven points in the national polls, and I can honestly say, I think he’s doing just fine. The talking heads and pundits would have you believe that his campaign is in a state of crisis, but this just is not the case. Incumbents have traditionally entered re-election races as favorites and it is up to the challenger to show the public a reason to unseat the current president. To do this, Kerry has assembled as solid a campaign team as possible, and seven weeks is an eternity in presidential campaigns. Furthermore, Kerry has shown himself to be most comfortable in the roll of underdog. Going into primary season, he never seemed totally comfortable in his roll as favorite, and did not really pull his campaign together until he had fallen behind leading up to the Iowa caucus.
Traditionally, presidential campaigns get moving in the weeks just after Labor Day. This is something the media, and in turn the public, seem to have forgotten. At this time four years ago, former Vice President Al Gore was leading in the polls by an average margin of 10 points, almost twice the cushion Bush currently enjoys, and that election could not have been any closer.
In the coming weeks, a lot of exciting things are going to happen surrounding the campaign, the first of which is the debates. It will be the first time the bulk of the electorate looks at the state of the race since the conventions. Going into these, each sides will do its best to over-hype its opponent in order to win the battle of public opinion. If a candidate goes in with low public expectations, any victory, however small, can be played as a large triumph. In reality, however, both sides have high expectations. These are two exceptionally strong debaters. The right will play up Kerry’s record in debates going back to his days in the Yale Political Union, and the left will counter with the fact that Bush has never lost a debate while running for office.
Ultimately, with the electorate highly polarized, I believe this election will come down to voter registration and turn-out; and on this front the left has done a fantastic job. Two years ago, Karl Rove said that his goal was to get 2.5 million new registrations in exurban and rural areas, and that with those votes Mr. Bush would win going away. This has not materialized. In the past two years, the DNC and a host of new liberal 527s, including my employer, America Coming Together, have out-registered the right by a large margin. Two weeks ago, Rove said that this was an irrelevant fact because the registrants on the left were unlikely to show up at the polls. Historically, his statement is supported, but ACT and other groups are looking to change this. We have a budget of $130 million to spend on our Get Out The Vote effort. We will see to it that our new registrants not only get to the polling stations, but also protect them from being improperly disenfranchised. In the past, the only people out doing GOTV work were the unions, but this year it will be different. ACT is planning to put 30,000 paid employees and volunteers in the states. Such scope of GOTV work has never happened before. This past week, we tested our apparatus in a Wisconsin Congressional primary with a candidate we are backing and saw tremendous results. She took 65 percent of the vote in a three-way race that was expected to be much closer.
The strength of this GOTV movement is bad news for Bush. While people hear a lot about the GOP machine, with its precinct captains and district organizers, the word from the states is that these people are nowhere to be seen. On an average day, ACT alone has several hundred canvassers out knocking on doors and the capability to contact tens of thousands of voters in swing states.
Ultimately, I believe that the election will hinge on the abilities of the two sides to effectively reach voters in swing states, and right now I think the left is truly doing a better job. Looking seven weeks ahead, which feels like an eternity to me, these are my thoughts on the election. Both sides will agree that Bush cannot win in a landslide. The country is too polarized about him for that. Either Kerry will come forward with a platform and vision for America’s future that captures the electorate’s fancy and will win going away or it will come down to a few hotly contested mid-western states and will be even uglier than Florida was four years ago.
Jason Sclar is in Ezra Stiles College. He is taking a leave of absence to work for America Coming Together in this semester.