The headlines could have read, "Voters say Kerry is 'better qualified' to be commander in chief, 52-44 percent." Or they could have said, "Bush approval rating at an all-time low." Instead, after a flurry of post-convention polls, the media all flogged the "Kerry got a weak bounce!" storyline. Never mind that the only person who was "predicting" a massive bounce was GOP pollster Mark Dowd -- for most of the media, the Democratic Convention in Boston could be written off as an abject failure. But that obscures the fact that the polls are offering some rather encouraging signs for John Kerry and the Democrats.
Last weekend's ABC News/Washington Post poll -- headlined "Tepid Bounce for Kerry" -- offers perhaps the brightest news for the Dems. Kerry leads Bush among registered voters 50-44, and voters consider Kerry "better qualified" to be commander in chief 52 to 44 percent. Likewise, when it comes to individual issues, Kerry has regained his massive leads on domestic matters, and edged into a tie with Bush on terrorism.
Meanwhile, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup survey proved less favorable for Kerry, placing him in a dead heat with Bush. Kerry can take consolation, however, in noting that even in this poll, his numbers on domestic issues tend to dwarf those of the president, and his approval rating sits at a comfortable 57 percent.
The CBS News poll, while ostensibly about the Democrats, was most noteworthy for its bad news about Bush. The president's approval rating has sunk down to 44 percent, and 55 percent of voters think Bush divisive (versus only 29 percent who think the same of Kerry). Perhaps most importantly, 44 percent of voters believe that the Democrats have a clear plan for the country, putting them in a virtual tie with the GOP, and marking a hard-won shift from the 2000 and 2002 elections, when the Democrats failed to distinguish themselves clearly. (In 2002, only 31 percent of voters thought the Democrats had a clear agenda.)
Of course, the big story was about the bounce, so to the bounce we go. Pundits far and wide scribbled untold pages about the lack of any meaningful post-convention rise for Kerry. Susan Page, in USA Today, nicely sums up the obvious explanations. The most plausible is that the electorate is simply too polarized and too "locked in" to switch candidates. 90 percent of voters have made up their minds, and very few partisan voters are willing to switch sides. Other explanations for the small post-convention hiccup include: the sunny, optimistic convention did little to fire up supporters; Kerry suffers when voters get to know him; Kerry failed to offer a plan for Iraq; and the bounce is on the way.
Of these, the theory that Kerry's bounce is yet to come may have the most validity. Very few people actually saw the convention: according to Gallup, only 25 percent of voters tuned in to "a great deal" of the festivities, and many of these viewers were likely knowledgeable about politics and thus already decided. Still, those who saw Kerry speak were suitably impressed, with 52 percent rating his speech "excellent" or "good," a number that includes many independents. This actually number is quite significant: neither Bush nor Gore received nearly as high marks in 2000. Another interesting development is that only 57 percent of Republicans thought the convention went "too far" in criticizing Bush, suggesting that Kerry doesn't rile up partisan rancor the way Bush does. Taken together, the numbers suggest that, as voters get to see Kerry more and more in the months to come, they'll respond either positively or, at worst, non-negatively.
Furthermore, Kerry has yet to take advantage of the Democratic Party's huge party lead among voters. A few weeks ago, the Pew Research Center released a study (PDF) showing that voters instinctively trust the Democrats more when it comes to handle domestic policy. Indeed, the party's advantages in health care (a 27 point advantage), education (+16), the economy (+12), and foreign policy (+2) have shot up tremendously since last year. Kerry may have caught up with these numbers during the convention. But, according to the ABC/WP poll, only 53 percent of voters know what Kerry's actual policies are. For this, we can blame the superficial media coverage, as Paul Krugman has, but at the end of the day Kerry must make himself heard. His domestic agenda is both smart and politically shrewd; it should be advertised in full.
The trickiest aspect of Kerry's campaign is that his lead, as always, depends heavily on Iraq and the economy retaining their salience as issues. According to the ABC/WP poll, voters who consider the economy their top priority prefer Kerry by 27 points, while voters who place special importance on Iraq prefer Kerry by 46 points. But Kerry's lead will no doubt slip if Iraq fades out of the media spotlight, or if the economy stumbles to full recovery and voters are willing to forget that Bush's policies have deprived the country of a good deal of potential growth.
Finally, we get to the horse race. In most of the post-convention polls, Kerry is barely leading nationally. If you look at the state-by-state races, however, Kerry is sitting in a very strong position. The Electoral Vote Predictor, which tallies up the latest polls from each state, now shows Kerry with a healthy electoral vote lead of 328-210, based on a number of post-convention Zogby battleground polls. (Lest this seem an aberration, note that the Democrats have held a healthy EV advantage all through July.)
Of course, state polls can shift considerably, but the important thing to notice is that Kerry is in a strong tactical position. Even if Bush wins Florida and Ohio, those much-hyped swing states, along with Missouri, West Virginia, and New Hampshire, Kerry can still take the election. In other words, Kerry has a lot of leeway in which states he absolutely must win. Bush, on the other hand, almost certainly cannot win the election without Ohio and Florida. Meanwhile, surprises abound. Tennessee, which refused to vote for native son Al Gore in 2000, is now officially a battleground state, forcing Bush to spend more time in a region he once considered safe. The numbers, it seems, are leaning Kerry's way.