On the night after John Kerry won the 2004 New Hampshire primary and became the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee, the dour senator trailed George W. Bush in a Rasmussen Reports poll by three points. Roughly nine months later on Election Day, in the only poll that mattered, Kerry still lagged three points behind Bush as the president won reelection.
Though the contest ended precisely where it began, the race was even less dramatic than that measure would indicate. The Bush/Kerry matchup was the exact opposite of a political roller coaster. Neither candidate ever managed to open a large lead.
Intuitively, one would have predicted a more volatile race. Prior to his nomination, John Kerry was relatively obscure. Theoretically, the challenger's numbers should have bounced around as America got to better know the haughty, windsurfing, multiple millionaire-marrying senator. And yet throughout the uncomfortable getting-to-know-you process that America went through with Kerry, his numbers remained constant.
More volatility might also have been expected from President Bush's end. The situations the president presided over were fluid fluid in a bad way. Throughout the 2004 election cycle, the news from Iraq consistently got worse. Growing doubts about the president's aptitude accompanied that deteriorating situation. For additional measure, Bush tossed in one of the most inept televised debate performances in the history of modern presidential campaigning. Yet still, Bush's numbers remained constant.
For political junkies, it was rather dull. Going by the weekly averages of the Rasmussen Reports tracking poll, the largest lead held by either candidate at any point in the race was a paltry 2.8 percentage points. That means the total oscillation between the two combatants was 5.6 percentage points. No matter what happened, the race remained static. Even Dan Rather's clumsy effort to fabricate a controversy over Bush's Texas Air National Guard service from three decades earlier couldn't move the political needle.
This year, it's different. Since it became apparent that would be the Democratic nominee several weeks ago, the Rasmussen polls have swung like 1970s suburbanites. 's biggest lead has been 5 points, Obama's 8. That's more than double the drama that Kerry/Bush could manage in nine months.
As we head off into the general election season, the question becomes whether Obama/McCain will settle into political trench warfare as Bush/Kerry did or whether the 2008 race will continue to show the volatility it has in its opening days. Scott Rasmussen, he of the all-knowing Rasmussen Reports polls, thinks we're in for a bumpy ride. "In 2004," he told me, "you had an incumbent president who was very well defined. You also had an issue that was front and center in the administration's mind, the opposition's mind and the public's mind the war on terror. That became the single defining issue." This year, Rasmussen sees no issue similarly dominating the political landscape.
Indeed, the issue that inflamed lefty passions for the past five years - Iraq has receded. The issue that has inflamed lefties even more is receding still more dramatically: George W. Bush. While it would be unrealistic for the McCain campaign to even hope that Bush becomes an irrelevancy before November, new issues like an unstable economy and $4 a gallon gas are pushing aside the old ones.
And then there's the nature of the two candidates themselves. The public's perception of the 2008 candidates is still a fluid thing. It wasn't that way in 2004. Even though John Kerry was new to the national stage, it turned out that he was such a familiar stock figure from our political theater that the public's perception of him remained stuck in mud. America had seen haughty, doctrinaire liberals from Massachusetts before. Kerry fit in rather well with the public's preexisting notions of this particular political animal. As for George W. Bush, after four years of serving as president, the public had become accustomed to his ways.
Again, this year it's different. The country has never seen a race featuring two candidates like Barack Obama and John McCain. Obama obviously represents something brand new. He certainly doesn't look like any previous presidential finalist, and he's also the most dynamic political personality America has seen in at least a generation.
More relevant to the race's potential volatility, he's also remarkably undefined. Unlike John Kerry, Obama doesn't neatly slip into an existing political category. His scant time in politics makes him something of a cipher. By the time someone becomes a presidential nominee, he typically has spent several years (if not decades) invading America's homes on the Sunday morning talk show circuit and explaining himself on an array of issues. To date, all America knows about Obama regarding specific issues is that he's very much in favor of hope and change and votes liberal down the line.
As America gets to know Obama better, the race will have its share of swings. Every time he gives one of his stellar speeches, he'll win new fans. Every time he commits one of his frequent gaffes, he'll raise doubts. And every time a Jeremiah Wright or William Ayers slinks out from his past into the national spotlight, Obama will lose ground.
As for John McCain, while it sometimes seems like he's been a political fixture since the powdered wig era, he also represents something new. Most people thought a guy who had spent much of the previous seven years sticking his thumb into his party's eye wouldn't have a chance of getting its presidential nomination. Now that McCain has the nomination, he's a different kind of candidate one who has a less enthusiastic base in his party than any of his modern predecessors, but also one who's much closer to the middle where presidential elections are typically won.
Rasmussen foresees an extremely volatile race. Where 2004 offered only 5 points of variance, Rasmussen thinks we may see up to 25 points this time around. While it may be exciting for the campaigns to compete in such a fluid environment, the nature of the race presents not only opportunity but risk. No matter how badly Bush or Kerry messed up, his numbers held steady. This year's gaffe-prone finalists will have no such luck.
By Dean Barnett
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