The Blog

Floor to Ceiling

Bush and Kerry campaign strategists try to spin the percentages and figure out where the candidates' support tops out.

12:00 AM, Oct 28, 2004 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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COVERING THE HOTEL-LUNCHEON BEAT comes with some definite perks: Namely, campaign officials come to you, not the other way around. On Tuesday, Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman and communications director Nicolle Devenish lunched with print reporters at the St. Regis hotel in downtown Washington, and on Wednesday, Kerry senior advisers Tad Devine and Doug Sosnick showed up for breakfast. Like their Republican counterparts, the two Democrats were too busy talking to eat. Not the pundits. Eleanor Clift had cereal with milk. Mark Shields had eggs and bacon. Mort Kondracke just had coffee. Other reporters ate danish. They slurped and munched while Devine and Sosnick talked about floors and ceilings. Sometimes I wasn't sure whether I was in the McLaughlin Group greenroom or an interior decorating seminar.

The Kerry campaign is interested in one ceiling in particular: the president's. Devine and Sosnick say the president still hasn't broken 50 percent support in most national polls. "The president has a lock on probably 47 percent of the vote," Devine said. And that's the national vote. When the Kerry campaign looks at the battleground states, they see Bush's support topping off at 45 percent--more reason to be happy. Remember, Sosnick said, in 2000, Bush (barely) won with 47.9 percent of the vote. According to the Kerry campaign's internal polls, Sosnick added, the president reaches 48 percent support in only one battleground state. (He declined to mention which state, but I suspect it's Florida, which these days is leaning toward Bush.)

So maybe the president's support is leveling off. Maybe the president's floor is 47 percent support, and his ceiling is 48 percent. If that's the case, Devine said, then the Bush campaign has only itself to blame. They've run a base-oriented reelection strategy, now centered around the charge that John Kerry is an unreconstructed liberal. Even if conservatives turn out in droves, however, the Kerry campaign believes it won't be enough for the president to win reelection. "You can't stretch 47.9 percent of the vote and 4 million evangelicals and win the election," Sosnick said.

And yet Sosnick and Devine seem to think you can stretch the Democratic base, add a few million independents, and win. They seem to think that Kerry can win over swing voters solely on issues like stem cell research and energy independence. They accuse Bush of running a base-oriented strategy, but it looks like they're running one too. Which, when you think about it, is probably as it should be, since both bases are energized about George Bush this year. One is energized about reelecting him. The other is energized about throwing him out.

Which base is more energized? That's easy: the Democrats. If you ask Kerry supporters whether the 2004 election is the most important in their lifetimes, like Newsweek did, 37 percent say yes. Ask Bush supporters the same question, and only 27 percent say yes. And even if Kerry supporters tell you that the 2004 election isn't the most important of their lifetimes, 40 percent still say that it is more important than others. By contrast, only 35 percent of Bush supporters think this election is more important than others.

This intensity shows up in other ways. Recently the Annenberg Public Policy Center asked committed voters whether they were following the election very closely. Fifty-four percent of Kerry voters said yes--three points more than the 51 percent of Bush backers who agreed.

Combine this level of intensity with the fact that both campaigns are playing to their base, and you see why the election is so difficult to call. Strategists in both camps agree that the result may hinge on turnout. Devine told reporters to expect turnout in the 118 million range--millions more than in 2000. "Potentially it could be higher," Devine said. He sure hopes so. Higher turnout historically favors Democrats.

Matthew Continetti is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.