Thursday, October 14, 2004

Is Kerry Crossing a Threshold?

I didn't say this in last night's post, but I was a little surprised at Kerry's big margin in the snap polls about debate performance. They keep rolling in, and if the last two debates are a precedent, the "Kerry won" perception may grow even stronger in a day or two.

There are three possible explanations for this apparent gap between my perceptions of the debate and those of voters.

First, I may have just been wrong in thinking the debate was pretty much a tie, probably because I spent more time shouting cool lines I thought Kerry should use at the screen than in really paying attention to how the debate was going.

Second, voters may be making a cumulative judgment about the relative performance of the candidates in all three debates, a measurement that Kerry would definitely win among everybody other than Bush partisans.

Or third, something more fundamental may be going on: Kerry may be crossing the magic threshold of credibility that enables challengers to beat incumbent presidents. It wouldn't be the first time that's happened as a result of televised debates: as all you political junkies know, it happened in 1980 when the one televised debate pivoted the whole election in the direction of Ronald Reagan, who just didn't come across as the shallow right-winger depicted by Jimmy Carter's campaign.

Even if this third hypothesis has merit, I'm certainly not suggesting that John Kerry's about to blow the race open and win by a landslide. The political dynamics of the country are far too polarized for either candidate to win over that many votes. There's plenty of time before election day--time BC04 will use relentlessly to re-smear Kerry and drive up his negatives (though it sure didn't work in 1980 for Carter whose late-campaign negative tactics were described at the time as "Mean Jimmy"). And again, this whole idea may be wrong.

But I for one am going to pay special attention to Kerry's "internals" in the next couple of big nonpartisan national polls. Democracy Corps already has a post-debate poll out, and it shows a sizeable shift in positive voter perspections of Kerry as a leader. If others show the same trend, then we may rightly conclude that Kerry's begun to close the deal with those undecided voters who (if their "wrong track" numbers are any indication) are itching for a reason to vote against Bush.

We'll know soon enough.
-- Posted at 5:06 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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