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Shifting Sands

Much to the chagrin of the campaign strategists, the 2004 election may depend more on how each candidate responds to the shifting sands of current events than any detailed campaign strategy. Although the electoral vote analysis shows a dead heat that neither Bush nor Kerry can win by more than the slightest margin, a key event or untimely statement may turn the election into a rout for one or the other.

William Carrick, a consultant to Dick Gephardt's presidential campaign put it this way: "Anyone who says they know what's going to happen in this race is not telling the truth."

What If?

What would happen to campaign strategy if the U.S. were hit with another terrorist attack in the months or weeks leading up to the election? Many analysts say the terrorist bombings of commuter trains in Madrid three days before the election turned the outcome from the heavily favored incumbent to the Socialist Party. How would a similar attack impact election results here? Would your views of either candidate be affected?

A Volatile Mix

A volatile mix of issues—Iraq, post 9/11 terrorism, gas prices, and an economy that's shedding jobs in the midst of recovery—is frustrating efforts by both candidates to gain an edge.

Iraq is a double-edged sword for both candidates, but it could end up costing Bush the election. He is, after all, the president who pushed for the war—America's first "pre-emptive" war—in the face of strong opposition. His approval ratings sank to the lowest level of his presidency in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. In a survey by the Pew Research Center shortly after the scandal became news, public satisfaction with national conditions fell to 33%, its lowest level in eight years.

Public response to the problems in Iraq shows that this will likely be the deciding factor in the election. Voter Carolyn Engberg from Albuquerque said, "I'd like to see a smooth transition [in Iraq], but I don't see a smooth transition coming out of this. We're so deep into this, if [the transition] fails, we'll be blamed. And if it succeeds, we'll be blamed for not doing it earlier."

Better Off Now?

While the war in Iraq may get the bulk of the media attention, jobs and the economy are still a key issue for most voters, especially in key battleground states. Bush radio and TV ads target battleground states with the message that the economy is growing again and Kerry is pessimistic, focusing on "days of malaise and the Great Depression."

Despite the economic growth, the picture isn't as bright as the Bush ads would paint it for everyone in the battleground states. Median household income is down slightly for the nation overall from 2000. Median income is up in 9 battleground states but down in 10, including the key states of Florida, Michigan, and Ohio. The election may come down to Ronald Reagan's famous challenge to voters in the 1980 campaign: Are you better off now than you were four years ago?

Michael Yost, a teacher who supports the war, said, "The bottom line is, if I don't see it, between June 30th and the election, getting better in some way, that's something that might affect my decision."

But many are still uncomfortable with the idea of Kerry as commander-in-chief. "I think he still has a lot to prove to me," said Donna Urban. "Kerry voted for the war, now he's anti-war. He's just dancing around. I'd like to see what he'd do."

Urban voted for Bush in 2000, but said he should be concerned about losing her vote this time.

All's Fair...in War

War and terrorism are Bush issues. In many ways, they play into his hands: He can point to his strong defense stance, say he's the better choice for commander-in-chief, and divert attention from the social and economic policy issues Kerry wants to highlight. But the election is riding on events that may be beyond his control.

One way to look at election strategy is to find a comparable set of circumstances and candidates from the past and see whether any patterns or similarities emerge. A wartime incumbent can benefit greatly from his role as commander-in-chief—if we won the war or it's going well.

The Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the concerns about the transition of power in Iraq may make this election resemble 1980 or 1968, years in which we were embroiled in difficult, divisive situations overseas.

In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson was so drained and demoralized by the turmoil of leading the war effort in Viet Nam that he declined to run for re-election as the Democratic incumbent. Hubert Humphrey was left to try and unify a party—and a nation—that was bitterly divided over a failing and questionable war promoted by the Democratic administration. Humphrey lost the election to Richard Nixon—who ran as a peace candidate—by a narrow margin in the popular vote and a wide margin in the electoral vote.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter was faced with the grim drama of the Iran hostage crisis. For months the nation was demoralized by pictures of Americans held captive in a faraway land and hostile mobs taking over our embassy and burning American flags.

When an attempt to free the hostages ended in a flaming helicopter wreck in the middle of the desert, Carter's fate was sealed. Carter's "crisis of confidence" speech would end up prompting a crisis of confidence in him. He lost to Ronald Reagan in a landslide.

Figure 3.3Figure 3.3 Scenes like this from Abu Ghraib add an unexpected crisis to the Bush campaign.

Will the shocking images of tortured Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib be President Bush's version of the hostage crisis? If Bush handles the prison scandal and the transition to Iraqi power skillfully, he can point to his record as the best man to lead the country in a dangerous and uncertain era.

If Bush isn't able to bring our troops home without incident, the war will trump all other issues and render any campaign strategy meaningless.

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