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Watching Kerry’s rise of support

| Thursday, October 14, 2004

The image of this year’s presidential election played out directly before me while I crawled through rush hour traffic on the Fourteenth Street Bridge next to the Jefferson Memorial. In the left lane, a Caucasian drove an old, battered Dodge van with a “Veterans for Kerry” bumper sticker. The van inched by an African-American driving a shiny Jaguar on the right with a “Veterans for Bush” sticker. The Sen. John Kerry supporter looked over at the Bush supporter and saluted. The President George W. Bush supporter wiggled his fingers as though to say, “Hello.” The contrast epitomized the reversed universe of this year’s electorate.

This column will be the last published before the election between Bush and Kerry. As Americans decide the outcome of the final debate, my crystal ball has sharpened its electoral images. Voters are processing how to reconcile a slump on the home front with a strong defense while equating how Iraq figures into their voting equations.

Voter registrations have soared throughout the nation which highlights the importance Americans are placing on the election and the future direction our next president will take us. Some constituencies are splitting from routine election patterns based on war, election spin or religious views. Yet one trend that is pointing to the outcome of November’s results is the slow, steady rise of John Kerry in the polls while the president stagnates in the mid to upper 40 percent ranges.

John Kerry is viewed as having performed better in each of the three presidential debates. Americans contrasted the unfiltered remarks of both candidates during the three debates. After the first debate, Kerry was viewed as having won by 16 percent immediately after the debate. Within a week, voters viewed Kerry the winner by 38 percent. While the second debate was a slight win for Kerry, the Senator won the third debate by 13 percent immediately after the event.

The debates this year served as a springboard for Kerry like the one and only debate in 1980 catapulted Ronald Reagan past then-President Jimmy Carter. A mere week before the election of 1980, Carter led Reagan by three percentage points until they met in the debate. Reagan swept past Carter in dramatic fashion.

This year will be similar with the challenger winning the election unless a dramatic attack on U.S. soil tips public sentiment. John Kerry has erased deficits in recent polls in most battleground states. Just two weeks ago, before any of this year’s debates, the president led in most contested states. As of the third debate, Gallop polls show that Kerry has pulled ahead in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oregon, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Campaign staffs usually choose which polling data they prefer to acknowledge for public consumption. I have chosen the Gallop data because Democrats complain that the Gallop organization reports polls of all registered voters and generally favors Republicans with its results. The instant “flash” polls after each debate, conducted by Gallop, showed Kerry with substantial wins. The battleground polls cited above are also Gallop findings.

The data within all of the polls has shown a constant ceiling that the president cannot break. His support numbers hover around 46 percent, varying a point or two in either direction. The president cannot win back those who have abandoned him for whatever reasons they cite: war, economy, health care, stubbornness, terror or ideology. Kerry has slowly convinced these voters, a few at a time, that he is an acceptable alternative. The momentum, small and slow as it is, nonetheless has been with Kerry since the first debate. His goal is to ride that momentum to election day.

This columnist has been on record since early summer forecasting that the election will not be as close as the 2000 election, or close at all. This columnist has forecasted that Kerry will defeat the president based on the internal data showing the president’s ceiling of support. Barring any dramatic event that tips public sentiment prior to election day, this race was decided in April when Iraq erupted with insurgency.

Crystal balls aside, the Bush supporter riding in the Jaguar with the “Veterans for Bush” sticker has foretold the president’s fate with his farewell wave to the Kerry veteran. That day, the battle of the bumper stickers garnered mutual respect. If only the process could be as clear-cut.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at hottline@aol.com.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.