WASHINGTON -- Pollster John Zogby surprised the political world back in April with a long-range prediction that John Kerry would defeat George W. Bush for president. On Monday this week, Zogby told me, he changed his mind. He now thinks the president is more likely to be re-elected because he has reinforced support from his base, including married white women.
That conclusion would be a surprise for frantically nervous Republicans and cautiously upbeat Democrats entering the campaign's final days. In fact, nobody, including Zogby and all the other polltakers, can be sure who will win this election. Yet, it is clear that President Bush's strategists have succeeded in solidifying his base to a degree that makes it much harder to defeat him next Tuesday.
The long, tortuous presidential contest has come down to who the "security mom" thinks can best protect her family against terrorism. Based on current polling data, Bush has won that argument in the face of Sen. Kerry's relentless attacks. That explains why the Democratic nominee this week was not talking about health care or other standby issues of his party, but was trying to pierce Bush's security shield by harping on the disappearance of munitions in Iraq.
The difficulty that Kerry now encounters has been shrouded by misleading overnight tracking from last weekend, showing a Democratic surge that is common in Friday-through-Sunday polling. Otherwise, Kerry is in trouble. When Zogby had second thoughts Monday, he found Bush with a national lead of three percentage points and an undecided vote of only 2.7 percent.
The data shows the undecided voters in Bush's base are resolving their misgivings about the president. Zogby's subgroups in the Republican base -- such as investors, military and married couples -- are returning to Bush.
Zogby shows Kerry's advantage among women is only three percentage points, exactly the same margin reflected in the nightly tracking by Republican pollster Ed Goeas. The Goeas poll shows a 13-percentage point Bush advantage among men. Goeas's poll has white men favoring Bush over Kerry, 58 percent to 35 percent. Remarkably, the count among white married women is not far behind: 53 percent for Bush, 42 percent for Kerry. The problem for the Democrats is Bush's continued large lead over Kerry concerning which candidate voters prefer to fight terrorism.
If these numbers hold up, the campaign strategy of Bush political adviser Karl Rove will be vindicated. While Kerry's strategy seems to have a thousand fathers, no presidential campaign in my experience has been so completely in the hands of one man as Bush's. Amid much private criticism in GOP ranks, Rove has concentrated on mobilizing the base behind Bush as the anti-terror candidate rather than making conventional overtures to undecided centrists.
With his base secure this week, the Bush strategy did turn to Democratic voters -- not with the usual leftward turn but appealing to hard-liners who have trouble accepting Kerry leading the war against terror. Campaigning in Wisconsin Tuesday, Bush invoked the memory of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy for their "resolve in times of war and in hours of crisis" -- drawing an unfavorable comparison with Kerry. Bush is after the security moms, Republican or Democrat.
On the same day, the Kerry campaign threw out previous plans and made the candidate's centerpiece a New York Times report of 380 tons of explosives found missing from Iraq. Although NBC embedded reporters said the explosives were gone when U.S. troops arrived in March 2003, Kerry insisted for two days that this was another example of Bush's inadequacy in waging the war on terror. Whether such a complex issue appeals to security moms is another matter.
A lot can happen in the next few days. In 2000, Zogby had Bush three percentage points ahead at this stage, but Al Gore seized the lead because of the attack on Social Security privatization and the revelation of Bush's drunk driving case.
Kerry needs what he has been unable to accomplish so far: a direct hit on Bush's anti-terrorism credentials. It is hard to imagine a Democratic victory without removing those security moms from under Bush's anti-terrorism banner.