Democrats now convening know that voters are unusually interested in the election and unprecedentedly polarized and that two large events have determined the campaign's dynamics. One was Howard Dean's decision to forgo public financing of his campaign. The other was the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal.
Dean's decision triggered -- and destigmatized -- John Kerry's emulative decision. Together they loosed floods of money from the left side of today's angry electorate. This will enable Kerry's campaign, and the supposedly "uncoordinated" 527 groups supporting it, to contest some states where his chances, although south of excellent, are well north of negligible.
Colorado, for example. A senior Bush campaign official calls it "competitive" only in the sense that Kerry can lose by 8 points or spend millions and lose by 5 points. The official puts Arizona in the same category. However, some such state is apt to provide a surprise on Nov. 2.
After Kerry locked up the nomination largely unscathed by his Democratic opponents, George W. Bush had three good weeks, raising voters' concerns about Kerry's "flip-flopping." Then came Bush's three dreadful months. After four Americans were murdered and burned in Fallujah, the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal eclipsed economic good news and solidified public forebodings about Iraq.
A third event, Kerry's selection of John Edwards as his running mate, did not alter the dynamics of the race. A Bush campaign operative, noting that Kerry's choice did not significantly help the ticket in North Carolina, asks: When was the last time a major party nominated a vice presidential candidate who could not be counted on to carry his home state? Actually, that happens frequently: Bob Dole selected New York's Jack Kemp in 1996, Michael Dukakis selected Texan Lloyd Bentsen in 1988, and Walter Mondale selected New York's Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, among other instances -- generally on losing tickets.
This year both candidates are thinking as Lincoln did when he reportedly said, "I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky." Kerry feels that way about Michigan and Pennsylvania. Gore carried both, as Kerry must. No Democrat has won the presidency without carrying at least five Southern states. Kerry might carry none, so he must try to sweep the big states between New Jersey and Missouri.
In Michigan, Gore beat Bush by 5 percentage points when there was a successful Republican governor, John Engler. Now there is a popular Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm. But, says the determinedly cheerful Bush campaign operative, Bush gains because Engler is gone: In 2000 Michiganders felt "Engler fatigue" after 10 years of his stewardship. And he had split Republicans by opposing a school-choice initiative. Furthermore, says the operative, this year social conservatives will be pulled to the polls by a ballot initiative to write same-sex marriage into Michigan's constitution.
But, as the operative acknowledges, both parties' core voters already are so motivated "they will be at the polls at 6 a.m." And two recent Michigan surveys have Bush at 43 percent, with Kerry at 46 percent in one and 50 in the other.
Pennsylvania, where Kerry leads and Gore beat Bush by 4 points, presents the Bush campaign with a complicated calculation. It can try to win the state with issues such as abortion, guns and capital punishment. This will drive up Kerry's winning margin in culturally liberal states, which does not matter -- unless it leads to a second Bush win with fewer popular votes nationally than his opponent. That would make Bush's second term even more disappointing than second terms generally are.
A cultural conservative, Rick Santorum, has been elected senator twice in Pennsylvania. But a campaign of cultural conservatism would cost Bush votes in Philadelphia suburbs. And with the electorate so polarized, it is unclear how many votes Bush could move his way.
Perhaps the most telling political fact of midsummer is this: More U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq in July (48 as of Saturday afternoon, Eastern time) than in June (42). But since Iraq acquired sovereignty, of sorts, the war has faded somewhat as a cause of nagging national dread.
According to a veteran Republican polltaker, there is still no evidence that anxiety about Iraq is pulling significant numbers of Bush supporters into the undecided category. But, then, considering that the last election result would have been reversed by the switch of 269 votes in Florida (or 3,606 in New Hampshire, or 13,784 in Nevada, or 20,490 in West Virginia), what number might prove to be "significant"?