One of the problems with polling is that people are often given open-ended alternatives to specific people and issues. For example, a political candidate may poll poorly when an opponent is unspecified, because people in effect insert their ideal candidate as the alternative. But when they are forced to consider only a particular individual as the alternative, the first candidate may do much better.
This is the case with George W. Bush. When people are asked if they will definitely vote for him next year, he shows enough weakness to make Democrats think he is beatable. But when he is paired against any of the Democrats currently running, Bush does much better. Frankly, I don't see any way that he can be beaten by any Democrat now in the field, nor do I see anyone standing in the wings who would do better.
I think most Democrats know this. That is one thing fueling the campaign of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, probably the most left-wing candidate to seriously compete for the Democratic nomination since George McGovern in 1972. Rank-and-file Democrats figure that since they can't win anyway, the more electable candidates like Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt have no advantage owing to that fact. If Democrats are going down in flames anyway, the base figures that they might as well do so behind someone who speaks to their soul, rather than some pale imitation.
Republicans did the same thing in 1964, when they nominated Barry Goldwater on the slogan, "a choice, not an echo." They saw that Lyndon Johnson was unbeatable that year and preferred to lose with someone who would represent principled conservatism. However, although Goldwater lost as expected, his long-term impact on the Republican Party was profound. Never again would the party nominate a candidate for president who ran as a moderate. Thus there is a direct line from Goldwater's loss to the victory of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Therefore, Democrats should be wary of supporting Dean as a protest against the blandness of Kerry, Gephardt, Edwards, et al. They could end up putting the Democratic Party on a course from which it will be difficult to change, one that will make it extremely difficult for an electable candidate to get the nomination in the future.
Nevertheless, I think that is exactly what is going to happen. We will know better in a few days when MoveOn.org announces the winner of its on-line primary, which started on June 24 and runs for 48 hours. I expect Dean to win handily, which will give his campaign a big boost by anointing him as the official choice of the Democratic Party's left-wing base. Being collectivists by nature, I think this will put a lot of pressure on movement leftists now supporting other candidates to get on board with Dean.
Consequently, I believe that Dean's chances of getting the Democratic nomination are good and getting better by the day. Professional political handicappers disagree, but I think they are looking at the wrong things. They think that things like fund raising and general election electability will ultimately determine the nomination. But what Dean may lack in these areas he more than makes up in the intensity and loyalty of his supporters. As in 1964, I think this may end up being the determining factor.
As a Republican, I am very happy to see this happening. It means that the Democrats will either nominate someone utterly unelectable like Dean, or a more mainstream candidate like Kerry or Gephardt who is fatally wounded by the nomination process and been forced to move so far left to beat back Dean that he, too, is unelectable.
In the past, Republican candidates have used such opportunities simply to run up the score for themselves. The classic example is Richard Nixon in 1972, running against George McGovern, the Howard Dean of his day. Although Nixon won a massive victory for himself, Democrats kept control of Congress, and he was unable to translate it into legislative victories subsequently. This left him vulnerable when the Watergate scandal broke.
To a lesser extent, Ronald Reagan did the same thing in 1984, and he paid a price as well when the Iran-Contra scandal emerged. In retrospect, both Nixon and Reagan would have helped themselves a lot more by investing some political capital in more aggressive issue-oriented campaigns, and efforts to elect Republicans to the House and Senate. They wouldn't have won as big, but the victory would have been worth a lot more.
Since he knows better than anyone that a president's ability to govern has little to do with the size of his victory, I think George W. Bush will run the kind of re-election campaign Nixon and Reagan should have run. We'll see.