When the Bush campaign released its TV ad last week featuring footage of John Kerry windsurfing, Kerry spokesman Mike McCurry told me it was a good sign for his candidate. The windsurfing footage was a bullet that he knew the Bush campaign would use in an ad eventually, McCurry said, and the fact that they fired it now shows that they’re worried, that they think Kerry is narrowing the gap with Bush. I wasn’t sure whether McCurry actually believed this or if he just wanted to put the ad in the best possible light for the Democrats. But Sunday’s Washington Post made me suspect that the Bush campaign really does think things are going poorly right now. Why? Because Republicans are starting to make preposterously overconfident predictions of a Bush landslide.
National polls show that the presidential race has gotten closer since the Republican Convention. A Bloomberg News report Monday noted that five national polls have Bush up by 4 points or less. The Republican reaction to this tightening was to announce to the Post that Bush is thinking about campaigning in Washington state and New Jersey—states that any winning Democrat should carry handily—to “expand a potential victory well beyond the states he won in 2000.”
It’s well-known that Karl Rove believes that swing voters like to vote for the winner. Therefore, one of the central political strategies for Bush has been to create an “aura of inevitability” that, theoretically, will bring people to his side. If everyone believes you’re a political juggernaut, the theory goes, then you will become a political juggernaut.
The worse things get for Bush, the more likely his aides are to declare that he is invincible. The Bushies are starting to sound like Baghdad Bob, trumpeting a decisive victory for Saddam Hussein as the American military zooms into Iraq’s capital city. Whenever Bush is in trouble, someone—usually Rove—declares that things are going just swimmingly. The most memorable example of this was Bush’s 2000 campaign trip to California to make it look like his election was going to be a walk even though polls showed that the race was a toss-up. Bush also took a day off from campaigning as a sign of confidence in his impending landslide. On Election Day, of course, Al Gore won more votes than Bush did, and eventually Bush won the presidency with only one more electoral vote than he needed to take office.
But there are other, less notable examples. Bush stuck with the same strategy during the 2000 primaries. In January of that year, as John McCain looked to be mounting a serious challenge to Bush’s nomination, Rove told the Austin American-Statesman that “Bush is entering the 2000 election season in a stronger position than any candidate in the history of an open presidential race on the Republican side.” A month later, Bush lost by 18 points to McCain in New Hampshire. The concept of “inevitability” was so central to Bush’s campaign strategy that Dana Milbank wrote a piece in the Washington Post after New Hampshire that was titled, “If Bush Is No Longer Inevitable, What Is He?”
In September 2000, a little more than four years ago, Rove told Ken Herman of the Austin American-Statesman the same thing that the Bush campaign is telling reporters now: “The neat thing is we are fighting on [Gore’s] territory rather than him fighting on ours.” Rove told Herman that Bush had a shot in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, too, just as the Bush campaign is declaring now. Granted, Bush did have a shot, and the races were close, but Gore took all three of those states. (Rove did predict to Herman that Bush would take West Virginia and Missouri.)
During a conference call earlier this month, senior Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart told campaign reporters that with regard to states like Illinois, New Jersey, and New York, “what we do will indicate our level of concern.” And until now, the Kerry campaign has not done much in those states. But John Edwards is holding a rally Tuesday in Newark, N.J. That doesn’t mean Democrats should start panicking, but it’s worth remembering that although Bush’s victories in the 2000 primaries and general election weren’t inevitable, it’s still true that he did win them.