DO "INCUMBENT RULES" MATTER IN 04?
Yes. Why? Iraq.
This is the first incumbent-vs-challenger Presidential election I've gone through while I was of voting age.
We've heard to great excess this year about how the predominant trend in previous elections is that undecided voters usually end up going against the incumbent. This would, at first, be seen as an advantage for John Kerry, since Bush's national numbers and battleground state numbers have him not getting any higher than the mid-upper 40's, and the remaining pool of undecided voters would go to Kerry by a 3:1 ratio.
But if I had to guess, I'd say that a lot of active Democrats are worried that this trend may not hold next Tuesday, perhaps myself included at times. There's a looming sense that this election will somehow defy precedent and normal trends. After all, the 2002 midterms did: The President's party gained seats for the first time in a midterm election in a long time, or ever? I don't remember.
They worry that the war on terrorism, and the threat/scare/fear dynamic therein has altered the tendencies of middle-of-the-road voters in some permanent fashion. Appeals to national security concerns conducted in rhetorically powerful fashions (like Saxby Chambliss putting Max Cleland's face next to Bin Laden's in his ads) were enough to tip the scales of legislative power towards the Republicans two years ago.
Will 2002's election results be repeated next week, with undecideds turning to the President at the very end?
No. Not this time.
There are two reasons for this, one structural and one more general.
The structural reason is that the Democrats didn't have shit for a ground-game or fundraising in '02. Now the streets and precincts of swing states will be crawling with motivated MoveOn and ACT volunteers, and they will have learned the lessons of Howard Dean's orange-hatted Iowa debacle. Plus we're looking at unprecedented levels of small-donor fundraising, allowing the DSCC and the DCCC to have much more versatility in their efforts, and allowing Democrats to be competitive in places where we shouldn't be. (Monigardo, Ginny Schrader, Patsy Keever, etc)
The the other, more general reason is simple: Iraq. No, I'm not talking about how Iraq is a clusterfuck right now, or about how Bush has mismanaged the war from start to no-finish-in-sight, though both of those apply. My argument is that by choosing to invade Iraq, the Bush administration and Republicans blew their precedent-setting wad.
After 9/11 and the start of the "war on terror", the Bush administration stressed over and over that this would be "a different kind of war". And for a while it was: After the speedy toppling of the Taliban, it was a matter of tracking down, capturing and killing Al Qaeda terrorists. By selling the war as one of "a different kind", the Bush administration was implying that because it was new and they were the ones conducting it, then they must be the only people who can fully understand it, and thus can conduct it best. It was this implication that allowed the Republicans to pick up seats in '02.
But Iraq fucked that up royal. Why? Because Iraq is much more like a conventional conquer-occupy-&-rebuild war than the more abstract "war on terror". It may not be precisely like Vietnam, but voters can look at the situation in Iraq and say "I remember this". They can more easily categorize and asess what's going on than when we were just hunting down international terrorist cells.
Because the administration built up the perception that they were the only ones who really know how to conduct the war on terror, they weren't held as accountable for their mistakes in it as they could have been. With Iraq, though, swing voters will likely take Bush and the Republicans to task for the clear ways in which that war has been fucked up.
The result is that what worked in 2002--things like Cheney's "they'll nuke our cities!" comments--will not be taken nearly as seriously this time around.
The above was my very long way of saying that the "undecideds usually go against the incumbent" rule will apply next Tuesday.
For some very uplifing analysis of how the incumbent rule might affect the election (a Kerry landslide?), go here
. I'll be content to be very, very nervous for the next 7 days.