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The Da Vincis of the Art of Political Spin

September 12, 2004|Susan Q. Stranahan | Susan Q. Stranahan is a staff writer for Columbia Journalism Review's website Campaign Desk (campaigndesk.org).

NEW YORK — The masters of controlling spin and bounce were busy last week, and we aren't talking about Serena Williams and Andre Agassi. These are pros who, with eager cooperation from the hungry news media, grab political headlines by raising and lowering expectations.

It's a nifty little trick. And practically everybody bites. After all, political reporters aren't that far removed from colleagues who hang out at courtside. Everybody loves a close match. But it's also become a real art form, with the true experts residing within the Republican Party. (The Democrats are showing some promising backhands, however.)

Several weeks before Democrats gathered in Boston, Bush campaign pollster Matthew Dowd predicted the race post-convention would "swing wildly" in favor of Sen. John F. Kerry. (Goal: Set the bar high; the higher the bar, the bigger the pratfall.) Dowd predicted a gain of at least 15 percentage points for Kerry, a bounce that may have been achievable in past elections but unlikely in this one given the tightness of the race. (There just aren't that many undecided voters out there.) But the number stuck, thanks in part to the media, which duly reported Dowd's predictions as gospel. (As one of my colleagues noted at the time: When campaign operatives offer specific numerical predictions about a race, "they're not doing it as a public service.")

Lo and behold, Kerry's bounce resembled a 10-year-old tennis ball (a negative 1, according to one Gallup poll) and -- surprise -- the news generated more headlines, hinting the Kerry campaign was in trouble because it failed to cross the hurdle -- one set in part by the GOP, thank you.

So, did the Democrats take their cue from Dowd and set a post-convention bounce bar for President Bush?

Before the GOP's arrival in New York City, Kerry pollster Mark Mellman, declaring Bush to be in a "very weak position," said the president would need a 55% approval rating post-convention to minimize the typical incumbent slide between the acceptance speech and election day. "Anything less than that, and the president will remain in grave political danger," Mellman warned. Two polls last weekend by Time and Newsweek (whose accuracy has been questioned) showed the president up 11 points, with a 52% approval rating -- three points below Mellman's red zone. A new Washington Post/ABC News poll gave Bush a four-point bounce, with 52% of likely voters supporting him and 43% supporting Kerry. In 19 battleground states, according to the poll, Bush garnered 50% of likely voters, and Kerry got 46%. Even a poll by Fox News, whose partisan loyalties positively glare, recorded only a tiny bounce, with likely voters choosing Bush over Kerry 47% to 45%. Did the Dems do their "told you so" and grab some headlines? No. (Recall, however, the Kerry campaign is in the midst of a staff reorganization; maybe nobody was on Bounce Duty.)

Dowd must have been happy; at week's beginning, Newsweek reported "Bush's Big Bounce," and Time declared "Kerry flagging." It should be noted that a USA Today/CNN/Gallup post-convention poll showed Bush with a far smaller bounce -- up two points to 52% among those expected to vote, with Kerry dropping two points, to 45%. Perhaps more significantly, among registered voters in a two-way contest, the poll showed 49% favored Bush and 48% backed Kerry, a veritable tie. That didn't make news because, heck, ties aren't as much fun as trounces. And how did the candidates' handlers respond to the numbers? Bush strategist Dowd, who told The Times' Doyle McManus that he'd be "happy with a one-point lead," later told USA Today that the president was further ahead than the campaign expected. (Goal: low bar, easily overcome.)

Kerry pollster Mellman predicted Bush's lead would "fade pretty quickly." (History is on Mellman's side; post-convention bounces rarely last long.)

So, who cares about all this stuff, except the candidates and the media, famished for fodder?

Unlike past years, when as many as one-third of the voters remained undecided at this stage of the campaign, less than 10% are now out there for the plucking. (Past elections show that two-thirds of the uncommitted ultimately back the challenger. Whether 2004 breaks the rule is anybody's guess.)

Even with those meager targets, is the bounce-and-spin season over? Not likely.

Next up, the debates, and more important to some, including the media, the post-debate polling, bouncing and spinning. Already, Dowd has thrown up the standard for Kerry to beat, telling the New York Times, "John Kerry, as everyone knows, has debated and debated and debated. He's the best debater since Cicero."

Now, that's a high bar.

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