As the campaign races to the end, with George W. Bush holding a slight lead over John Kerry in most polls, it is interesting to go back and see how much of the political conventional wisdom (you read some of it in this space) has proved to be wrong.
The Republicans will have a big money advantage, especially between the primaries and the conventions. Dead wrong. First Howard Dean, then John Kerry and the Democratic Party found huge numbers of unexpected money come in on the Internet. Energized Bush haters contributed again and again, and Kerry and the Democrats have had plenty of money to get their messages out.
Senate Democrats have done a fine job of raising money, too. Huge amounts, mostly from very big contributors, financed the anti-Bush ads and organizing drives of 527 organizations. Three individuals -- Peter Lewis, George Soros and Steve Bing -- contributed more than $50 million to anti-Bush 527s. Thank goodness the McCain-Feingold law got the big money out of politics.
It's the economy, stupid. During most of the 2003-04 campaign cycle, many commentators have said the election will come down to the state of the economy. It doesn't look like that today. The economic numbers -- unemployment, inflation, jobs -- have been quite good the last 14 months, similar to those when Bill Clinton was re-elected in 1996.
Polls show the economy is a wash. Sure, John Kerry and other Democrats are talking about jobs in local areas that have had highly visible job losses. But they talk about Iraq much more. One possible reason: Voters who remember the 1930s Depression have always been exquisitely sensitive to even mild upticks in unemployment and downticks in the economy. But these voters were only 8 percent of the electorate in 2002, and that number is not going up.
Voters have made up their minds about George W. Bush, and his numbers are not going to rise or fall much. This has been the line of many intelligent Democratic pollsters, and there is a lot of precedent to support it. Re-election races have tended to be referendums on the incumbent. But the numbers this year have told a different story. Bush's numbers against Kerry sunk during the spring, when the news media was running stories on Abu Ghraib and Iraq violence. Then Bush got a bigger bounce out of his convention than Kerry did during his convention. Bush's numbers sunk after the first debate, but rose after the next two, even though polls showed him doing no better than a draw.