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Numbers Game

Turning purple with Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman.

5:22 PM, Oct 26, 2004 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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SOME REPORTERS spend the final week of the presidential race inside the Bush and Kerry campaign bubbles, following the candidates to swing states, eating fast food, obsessively checking their Blackberries, and writing up the candidates' stump speeches again and again and again. Not me. Today I'm in a well-appointed dining room in the St. Regis hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., where Bush-Cheney '04 campaign manager Ken Mehlman has come to talk to print reporters over lunch. And what a lunch: Caesar salad to start, then grilled chicken breast over rice and mixed steamed vegetables, then a strawberry mousse cake with extra strawberry sauce for dessert, all followed by lots of coffee. It's enough to make you feel sorry for the poor saps on the campaign trail. Or almost enough, anyway.

The several dozen journalists here, mostly reporters from major dailies, are eyeing Mehlman's food greedily, because he hasn't touched his plate. Which isn't a surprise, really, since he's too busy talking. He's talking about momentum, he's talking about the Bush campaign's get-out-the-vote strategy, and he's talking about adding new voters to the rolls. He's talking about undecided voters and important moments in the race and John Kerry's lack of conviction. Mostly, though, he's talking about numbers.

So many numbers! Listening to Mehlman, you have vague and disturbing memories of college statistics courses. Sometimes it seems like every sentence he utters contains at least half a dozen facts and figures. He says, for example, that when you average all the polls taken in the last week, the president leads by 3.3 percent. He says that since the third debate there have been 52 polls. Of those polls, Mehlman continues, the president led in 42. Of the rest, seven showed a tie. John Kerry led in three.

Then Mehlman mentions that in the latest Gallup poll, John Kerry had the highest unfavorability rating than any challenger since McGovern. He says Bush has made inroads with women, with African Americans, and with Latinos. And again, he has numbers to prove it: If you average the polls, Mehlman says, Bush has increased his support among women by 7 points since 2000; according to one poll, he's doubled his support among African Americans since 2000; according to another, he's increased support among Latinos by 7 points in the same time span.

THERE'S MORE. Mehlman shoots off campaign statistics almost as quickly as his boss Karl Rove. Reporters, scribbling furiously in their notebooks, can hardly keep up. "We have 7.5 million new activists," he says quickly. "We registered 3.4 million voters; we have 1.2 million volunteers; we have 65,000 precinct chairman; this weekend we will make 14 million volunteer contacts." He takes a breath, his eyes grow wide, and then repeats that last figure, obviously impressed with it: "14 million volunteer contacts."

No doubt all these numbers are impressive. But what do they mean? At one point Mehlman says the Bush campaign conducts "30,000 door knocks per night" in Florida. This could result in higher turnout among Republicans, which, of course, favors the president. Or it could result in a lot of annoyed suburbanites. When you look at these figures, and then listen to Mehlman talk about them, you realize that the numbers have become, in some sense, an end in themselves. After all, they won't mean a thing if Bush loses. Nor will the "aggressive web program" Mehlman boasts of during lunch. Nor the "multilevel targeting program" that "measures output."

Mehlman, of course, thinks that Bush will win, and that all these door knocks will have something to do with it. Maybe. He makes a more convincing argument for a Bush victory, however, when he turns his attention to the battleground states. Here's Mehlman's argument: Kerry is defending more territory than Bush. Some of the states Al Gore won narrowly in 2000 are now battlegrounds. And most of the states that were once squarely in the Democratic column are located around the Great Lakes: places like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan.

The potential problem for the Kerry campaign is that each of these states contains a rural population that has traditionally voted Democratic. But in many ways these voters are out of step with their party. They are social conservatives, they attend church regularly, and they are more likely to support the president on the war. They are more likely to support the president on national security matters in general, and on abortion, and on same-sex marriage. They are more inclined toward the president's leadership model, not John Kerry's. For these voters, decisive action trumps reflective judgment.