Party Poopers

Will a few pessimistic polls sour the Democratic Party’s big week?

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The pundits will banter forth each night over how well or how poorly the convention is “playing” to voters. But nothing offers a sobering dose of reality — or at least reality within a margin of error — like the polls. On Tuesday, a new ABC News / Washington Post survey indicated that a growing number of voters are souring on John Kerry, due mainly to uncertainty over what he stands for. The new numbers will no doubt spoil some of the convention-day fun. But honestly, how much gloom can one poll really offer?

On first glance, the bad news in the ABC poll is really quite bad for the Democrats. Kerry is running practically even with Bush on a variety of issues, including education (47-46 Kerry), the economy (47-46 Bush), and health care (47-44 Kerry). The gap between the two has closed considerably since last month, when voters thought Kerry would do a better job on health care 56 to 38 percent, and gave him higher marks on education 50 to 40 percent.

What caused the change? It may be the case that Kerry’s numbers on the issues simply rise and fall with the overall perception of him as a candidate. Eduwonk, an education blog, was first to float this theory, noting that Kerry’s education numbers plummeted without anything actually happening in the world of education. It may well be that Kerry shouldn’t focus too much on policy proposals, because his fortunes will hinge on a few key events — like Iraq, which is drifting out of the headlines, or steadily rising consumer confidence. If this is the case, then the election remains largely out of Kerry’s hands.

But perhaps voters simply want to hear more from the candidate. According to the ABC poll, only 46 percent of registered voters have a good feel for Kerry’s stances on various issues. And you can be certain that a bunch of Republicans are included in that number. Most likely, a good deal of swing voters — a group that tends to be the most uninformed slice of the electorate — have little opinion of John Kerry. If they’ve never heard about his innovative plan for teacher reform, or his clever health care proposal, they’re not likely to give him high marks.

The good news is that there is plenty of room for improvement. A July Pew Research Center poll (PDF) last week revealed that voters instinctively trust the Democratic Party 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. From the looks of things, Kerry simply needs to highlight his sensible and thought-out Democratic agenda, and his approval rating will rise naturally.

Bottom line: Democrats shouldn’t fret just yet. While analysts will always argue back and forth about the electoral landscape, in recent weeks, the signs have become encouraging for Kerry. In Salon, David Gopoian offered his own careful analysis, arguing that Bush has more or less maxed out his support, while Kerry still has room to appeal to swing voters. Charlie Cook, in National Journal, has noted something similar, pointing out the long-held conventional wisdom that undecided voters usually break for the challenger at the last moment. And Ruy Teixeira has observed that, in addition to winning over his usual constituencies, John Kerry has done well among white working class voters.

In sum: all anyone knows is that the race will be tight, and cause plenty of hand-wringing and stomach-churning on both sides. But no one poll can spell doom for either party.

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