- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 9, 2004

To those of us who consider ourselves contrarians, it is the “perfect campaign,” as we observe the 2004 presidential contest. Unlike the “perfect storm,” it is not necessarily a disaster for anyone but the purveyors of conventional wisdom, the antithesis of contrarian insight.

Just a few words about contrarianism at the outset: It is a discipline of thinking and analysis which assumes that, in most cases, when popular opinion asserts that something is true or will happen, the opposite or contrary will in fact occur. It is most often applied in stock-market investing and politics. It is not an insight or rule that always works, but it works often enough to be very useful to those who properly employ it.

I said it was a discipline because it takes a strong will to resist overwhelming popular opinion — whether it is held by the public at large, or by a particular group, including experts.

The conventional wisdom at the outset of the 2004 campaign (which really began following the 2002 elections, then and now, complicated by the tremendous impact of September 11) was that President Bush, like his father had in 1991, enjoyed spectacular support in the polls and would be unbeatable. The situation was quite different, however. Mr. Bush’s father had won the 1991 Gulf War so quickly that many ignored the fact that he had left Saddam Hussein in power. In 2002, Mr. Bush had to fight a war in Afghanistan (which most Americans supported). Then, less than a year later, he had to persuade the American public that it was necessary to fight another war in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein and his regime. During most of this period, in addition, the domestic economy was in a recession that had begun in the earliest days of his term and produced high unemployment. As Democrats began to announce their candidacies, conventional wisdom had it that the party’s eventual nominee would come from a group of seasoned politicians who would pursue a centrist path not dissimilar to the one that Bill Clinton had travelled in two successful elections.

Conventional wisdom began to falter almost immediately. Former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, running as an antiwar populist, took a commanding lead in the polls and became the focus of the campaign. But after conventional opinion concluded that he was unbeatable for the nomination, he failed suddenly in Iowa. Sen. John Kerry, a war hero in Vietnam who eventually turned against that war, filled the vacuum. In the primaries, he locked up the nomination before his charismatic rival, Sen. John Edwards, could catch up. Iraq and the continuing recession drove President Bush’s numbers down. Mr. Kerry began to have a small, steady lead in the polls.

The president’s inability to communicate effectively further played into the Democrats’ strategy, and conventional wisdom began to assert that Mr. Bush, like his father, would have only one term. Mr. Kerry chose Mr. Edwards to be his running mate, and Mr. Bush’s numbers continued to decline. The economy, however, began to give clear signals of recovery. Exuding confidence, even some bravado, the Kerry-Edwards team arrived at their convention in Boston sanguine about their prospects and almost certain they would receive at least a traditional “bump” following it.

But the bump did not happen. Popular opinion then suggested that Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney would similarly fail to meet expectations, especially since they had scheduled their convention in New York City, which is hostile to Republicans. In fact, Mr. Bush gave the political speech of his career; meaningful protests did not materialize; the setting proved positive to the GOP message; and Mr. Bush got an unexpected bump.

In this “perfect contrarian campaign,” however, the worst that could happen to the Bush-Cheney effort would be for it to embrace any conventional wisdom that says its current lead in the polls and momentum means that the election is over. As it happened to Mr. Dean, and then to Mr. Kerry, momentum and leads can evaporate almost overnight.

Another bit of conventional wisdom that has been peddled by pollsters and the media is that most of the electorate made up its mind early, and that the swing voters are quite small in their numbers. I think the rapid gyrations in the polls signal something different. Part of the problem is the increasing unreliability of public-opinion polls, especially those with small samples and poorly worded questions. The cliche that polls are only a photograph of the moment may often itself be wrong if a poll does not measure the decisive aspects of voter sentiment.

If the Bush-Cheney campaign has any real reason for optimism today, slightly less than two months from the election, it is that their opponents have yet to convince voters they should fire the incumbents in this volatile time. Nor has Kerry-Edwards, for all of its criticisms of this administration (at least some of them valid), yet articulated a persuasive. clear and substantive alternative.

Time is beginning to run out.

Barry Casselman has reported on and analyzed national politics since 1972.

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