With Senator John Kerry's sweep last Tuesday, the battle for the Democratic nomination has finally come to an end. After vanquishing his rivals one by one, Senator Kerry is now guaranteed to win the Democratic nomination and will face President Bush in November.
Though many pundits are predicting one of the closest and nastiest campaigns in recent memory, it's amazing to hear how cocky many Democrats on campus already sound. Having managed to pull off the impressive feat of a quick win in a clean primary, you'd think that all Kerry has to do now is raise money and start writing his inauguration speech.
But President Bush has been "misunderestimated" before. In addition to his now-legendary war chest, Bush has several hidden advantages going into the election.
First, Bush is the incumbent and is extremely popular within his own party. It is notoriously difficult to unseat an incumbent politician, let alone the President of the United States. Despite partisan anger at them, Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton faced no serious primary opponents and cruised to re-election. Presidents Jimmy Carter and George Bush, Sr., the last two presidents voted out of office, both faced strong challengers in the primaries that left them vulnerable in the general election. So far, there's still no sign of any major Republican backlash against Bush. This bodes ill for Kerry come November.
Second, despite a monumental effort by liberals, Bush has managed to avoid being portrayed as either dishonest or too conservative. The last major Gallup poll, taken in mid-February, showed a majority of Americans still believe that Bush both shares their values and is honest and trustworthy. Democrats may point out that Kerry has much higher numbers here, but he hasn't faced any serious public or media scrutiny, whereas Bush has taken a public beating worthy of a Mel Gibson movie.
In fact, there are two areas where President Bush is still out polling Kerry in most surveys. Bush has kept a high single-digit (and in some cases double-digit) lead over Kerry on both moral character and being a strong and decisive leader. The former is important because it shows that most Americans either don't believe or don't care about the charges that Bush was AWOL during his National Guard service. The latter is even more critical because decisiveness is an essential trait of leadership, something the Democrats were hoping Kerry's Vietnam record would neutralize.
And while Bush has hidden advantages, Kerry has hidden weaknesses. For starters, he is far from an ideal candidate. He looks old and sounds tired. His speeches somehow make Al Gore seem alive and vibrant. His Senate record is the worst of both worlds: no major legislative achievements and plenty of fodder for attack ads. Kerry spent most of the last year polling behind Howard Dean and Wesley Clark until Dean flamed out and Clark failed to gain any traction. During that time, he famously fired his campaign manager over lunch and was also berated by his own staff on at least one occasion.
Kerry's two major strengths are his Vietnam heroism and his "electability." Unfortunately for Kerry, war heroes can't always turn battlefield valor into political capital. Just ask presidential candidates John McCain and Bob Dole or Senate candidate Max Cleland. They all lost to candidates with less-impressive military résumés. In fact, the last presidential candidate to win solely on his military record was Dwight Eisenhower, mostly because Adlai Stevenson was perceived as insufficiently hawkisha charge Democrats will be obviously not be making against Bush anytime soon.
The same electability that helped Kerry steamroll the rest of the primary field is also his biggest weakness. Electability is the political equivalent of a junk bond, and with good reason. There are no underlying personal traits or signature issues to keep the troops motivated through the inevitable pitfalls during a campaign. Primary voters who preferred discernible qualities like ideas or personality supported Dean or Edwards by large margins. This also means that Kerry is currently a candidate without an identitybesides, of course, "Vietnam veteran." The President's supporters certainly have their own view of Kerry. They have already started publicly describing him as both a flip-flopper and weak on defense, charges that the Kerry campaign will be hard-pressed to rebut.
Though the media has helped sustain Kerry's currently popularity by treating him with kid gloves, the gloves will eventually come off. Inevitably, all these issues will come back into the public spotlight. At that point the press will suddenly "discover" Kerry's flaws, such as his poor voting record on defense. More damaging, they might start associating him with his former boss Michael Dukakis. As Senator John Edwards said two weeks ago, "Not so fast, John Kerry!"