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"We're Cautiously Optimistic"

Matthew Dowd explains why Bush's prospects for Election Day look pretty good.

12:00 AM, Oct 29, 2004 • By ERIN MONTGOMERY
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THIS ELECTION is going to be close, but George W. Bush will indeed be victorious. This was the prediction made by Matthew Dowd, senior strategist for the Bush-Cheney campaign, at a luncheon held at the St. Regis hotel in downtown Washington yesterday. For the past week, a dining room at the hotel has been the site for eager print journalists to ask campaign insiders for their Election Day prophecies. On Tuesday, Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman and communications director Nicolle Devenish lunched at the hotel. And on Wednesday, senior Kerry advisers Tad Devine and Doug Sosnick sat down to breakfast. But only the reporters had the chance to actually eat anything, including all the numbers and statistics being fed to them by these campaign officials who fielded questions about each candidate's prospects in the final days leading up to the election.

"We are cautiously optimistic," Dowd told reporters who dined on salad, salmon, and pie. Based on an average of national polls taken in the last 24 hours, the president is leading by a margin of 2 to 3 percent. The president's job approval rating is at 51 percent, according to the latest Gallup poll. And when it comes to the undecided vote, well, history is working against Kerry. Citing a University of Michigan study, Dowd says the notion that undecided voters will typically vote for a challenger is unfounded. In the 1996, 1992, and 1984 elections, an average of 32 percent of undecided voters voted for the incumbent, 31 percent for the challenger, and 16 percent for someone else. Besides, Dowd says, there are very few undecided voters left out there. And if you ask them who is going to win the election, by 2.5 to 1, they say Bush will.

Also, there has been no great surge in the numbers of new voters. Ten percent of voters this year say they are "new voters" compared to nine percent last year. Meanwhile, polls show that Bush is winning the early vote by 15 points.

Trying to avoid any questions on the potential for legal wrangling post-election, Dowd said he expected the election to be decided on Election Night. He also didn't talk much about Ohio or Pennsylvania, which he said was "dead even." Instead, he placed emphasis on Michigan, a state to which both Bush and Gore devoted little time and resources four years ago. "Residents in traditionally Democratic areas [in Michigan] are slowly considering themselves Republicans," Dowd explained. "If we win in Michigan, Senator Kerry can't win the White House--that's a reality," he later added. Senator Kerry will travel to Michigan this weekend, and two-thirds of Bush's stops in the remaining days of the campaign will be in states that went to Gore in 2000.

Dowd took a moment to point out how unique this race has been thus far. "Cable [television] will change the way campaigns are covered," starting with this campaign. And he's not just talking cable news. The Bush campaign bought advertising spots on the Learning Channel and the History Channel. And, as far from unique as it might sound, Republicans are crazy about Bush: "We're getting 94 to 95 percent of the Republican vote . . . which no Republican [candidate] has ever gotten in a race. Ronald Reagan got 89 percent of the Republican vote in 1984 when he won a landslide. And the Republicans are as enthusiastic this time as they've been in any other presidential election."

Dowd suggested a bleak post-election future for Democrats, whom he feels cannot continue to run parties based on an "anti" message. "Where will the Democrats go after the election?"

Erin Montgomery is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.