Both of the polling organizations that track the presidential race in daily surveys have concluded that the contest has settled into a stalemate. Scott Rasmussen reports that for eight of the last nine days, President Bush has gotten 45 to 46 percent of the vote, while Sen. John Kerry ranged from 44 to 46 percent. John Zogby shows Kerry ahead by three and reports little movement either way.
This "tie" is terrible news for the Bush camp.
One of the (very few) immutable laws of politics is that the undecided vote almost always goes against the incumbent. Consider the past seven presidential elections in which an incumbent ran (1964, '72, '76, '80, '84, '92, and '96) - that is, look at the final vote versus the last Gallup or Harris polls. My analysis shows that the challengers (Goldwater, McGovern, Carter, Reagan, Mondale, Perot, Clinton, and Dole) got 85 percent of the undecided vote. Even incumbents who won got only 15 percent of those who reported that they were undecided in the final polls.
So . . . when Bush and Kerry are tied, the challenger really has the upper hand.
More bad news for Bush: Democrats usually grow 2-3 points right before Election Day as downscale voters who have not paid much attention to the election, suddenly tune in and "come home" to their traditional Democratic Party moorings. Remember, virtually every poll (except Zogby) showed Bush slightly ahead of Al Gore as the 2000 election approached - yet Gore outpolled Bush by 500,000 votes.
I had thought - and hoped - that Bush could open up a big lead in the two months after Kerry locked up the Democratic nomination. After all, Kerry is, in fact, way too liberal for the average American voter. But Bush's negative ads - though good, plentiful, and on target - lost their impact in April.
What happened? Iraq. The surprising casualties of this disastrous month let Kerry skate by the avalanche of attack ads relatively unscathed. And by now, Bush may have lost the ability to define Kerry
Lying behind the bad news for Bush is his inability to appeal to women in the campaign. His "stand firm" press conference last week was entirely male-oriented. His tough words and determination to defend the cause of the "fallen" resonated well with men but crashed among women.
The genders see the War on Terror in totally different terms. Rasmussen reports that men, by 51 percent to 36 percent, say that the U.S. is safer than it was before 9/11. But women are evenly divided, with 41 percent feeling more safe and 42 percent, less.
Women disagree with the entire Bush strategy of fighting terrorism. Offered a choice between "letting terrorists know we will fight back aggressively" and "working with other nations," men opt for fighting aggressively by 53 to 41 percent while women want us to work with other nations instead by 54 to 36 percent - a gender gap of 30 points.
To bounce back, Bush obviously has to staunch the bleeding in Iraq. But he also has to appeal to women voters as he did in 2000.
Then, he was a "compassionate conservative" committed to leaving "no child behind." Now he needs to speak of the human toll exacted by Saddam Hussein when he ran Iraq. He should speak about saving the children of that beleaguered nation. At home, he has to explain why a democratic - or at least a stable - Iraq means more safety for our families. He should discard the military-macho rhetoric and the bureaucratic references to American "credibility" and focus on values, human beings, children and hope.
If Bush permanently alienates women by his words and tone in the War on Terror, he'll throw away the issue that he needs to carry him into a second term.