Echoes of 1980--the debates
I've spent some time discussing the dynamic of incumbent elections, and how they differ from elections where neither candidate is currently President. The primary difference is in staging. There are two distinct phases of the campaign: the incumbent referendum, and the look at the challenger with respect to whether he measures up to that previously developed personal standard. This phenomenon explains why things seem so bad for President Bush lately, but John Kerry has apparently failed to capitalize into the double-digit lead Bush's tumble apparently suggests he should have--no one is paying attention to Kerry right now. His continued high rate of "don't know" responses is indicative of this, and you can imagine why; everyone is focused on whether Bush deserves another four years to work his undeniable magic.
So far the referendum is going dangerously badly for him. Worse, there is a fairly dense minefield of upcoming events he will have to tiptoe through on his way to the convention. Just holding where he's at now in the face of more hearings, reports, leaks, and letters from the front will be tough enough, but Bush simply can't get re-elected with favorability numbers like he has now. It won't happen. But if he makes it relatively intact to New York, and people aren't totally turned off by the idea of capitalizing on 9/11 to make a political tableau, he'll likely ride a little bump as the season gets into gear and the focus becomes the upcoming debate(s).
Also during this time, Kerry will have made his big presentation in Boston, and then gone somewhat off-duty for August while the Olympics and the GOP convention take center stage. He'll be a little shorter of money than Bush, having an extra five weeks in which to stretch his $75 million federal gift, so he'll probably be a little ad-quieter. Which means that for Kerry too, the debates will likely be a defining moment: put side by side, does Kerry exceed the standard we've come to associate with Bush as we made up our minds this spring?
There's a fine article in the newest Atlantic Monthly*, highlighting the importance of the debates and how differently the two approach them--indeed, how they approach almost anything, and how their historic debate performances so deeply reflect who they are. Fallows' conclusions may be a little surprising on both accounts, but I think they're spot on. And I can't wait for them. I called this the Echoes of 1980, because this really is shaping up as a very similar election: crisis-troubled incumbent vs the challenger who no one really knew about, and who the party supported but was initially unsure of as a worthy enough opponent. By the end of summer, people had pretty much made up their minds about Carter, and their attention turned to Reagan. By the time he got off those folksy "there you go again" type lines and balanced them with steely vision statements in the debates, the race was over.
*this link will only be active until June 7, so that subscribers can enjoy it all to themselves. I think it's a little weird, but it's their rag. And if you view the page and save it in your cache before then, you can keep it anyway.