According to a new Gallup poll, in a head to head match up Kerry would beat Bush 53% to 46%. Since Kerry will probably be our candidate, this is encouraging news. Though this far out it’s a little early to declare victory. In fact, Gallup’s press release focuses on this:
A review of historical trial-heat data from past elections shows it is rare for an incumbent president to be trailing at this stage in a campaign. At the same time, in the eight elections analyzed here, there have been campaigns in which the incumbent led in February but was defeated for re-election in November. As such, it is hard to draw any inferences as to what Bush's current standing means for his re-election prospects.
…There are comparable data from as far back as 1948 for elections in which an incumbent president was pitted against his eventual challenger in January or February of the election year…. Gallup's historical polling shows it is rare for an incumbent to be trailing any named opponent at this early stage in the election year. The only other time an incumbent trailed his eventual challenger (or, for that matter, any other possible opponent tested) at this stage in the campaign was in 1976, when Democrat Jimmy Carter held a slight edge over incumbent Gerald Ford, 48% to 46%.
Gallup goes on to review all of the elections for which they have comparable data. I’m sure this will be of interest as trivia for history and strategy geeks (I count myself in both groups) to chew over, but I wonder if there is more of interest here.
Gallup says it’s an unusual enough occurrence that they don’t know what to make of it, except that Bush is probably in for a tough race. That in itself is new. We’ve been hearing for months that the popular wartime president is a shoo-in. Is this the beginning of a new “Bush is in trouble” meme? I hope so. Let’s encourage it.
I’m going to throw out a few other possibilities, just for fun. The only other president in the in Gallup’s polling whose incumbency couldn’t give him a lead in head to head match ups at this point in the year was Ford. What do Ford and Bush have in common. Four letter names, not known for their brightness, entered the office in questionable circumstances and faced questions about their legitimacy. Much as I like that idea, I don’t think it explains much; why would everyone suddenly notice his illegitimacy now? I think the explanation has more to do with the way this primary is playing out and the nature of the professional news media.
Gallup describes their comparison as one of match ups at “this early stage in the election year.” But how early is it. Rather than look at the calendar look at the milestones in the election cycle. As far as the process of picking a candidate, this time of year is more like April or so in other election years. The press has lavished attention on this front-loaded season, giving Kerry a tremendous amount of exposure. At the same time Bush has had negative exposure in the way the O’Neil, Kay, and Plame stories have been presented. I think Bush’s long free ride in the press has come to an end. I hope that, in their usual fickle way, the press will try to make up for their previous unbalanced coverage by dumping on Bush for a while. That might be naively optimistic of me, but it beats the alternative.