In other words, the trouble with the polls this time involves a fundamental problem of definition. Pre-election polls always depend on a set of assumptions about who is and who isn't a "likely voter." But this year--owing to the near-unfathomable combination of a widely despised president who threatens to draw out enormous numbers of people who don't usually vote, and a challenger who seems just as intent on convincing them to stay home--no one has any clear idea of who's going to show up on November 2.
I take Zogby more seriously than the rest. His analyses are more cogent and far-reaching than the others, and his firm came closest to predicting the final outcome in both 1996 and 2000. Current Zogby numbers as of last Friday gave Bush a 46 to 44 lead in a two-way race and a 46 to 43 edge with Nader et al. included. He points out that Bush is still running net negatives on job performance, deserving reelection, and the direction of the country. Lest this seem inordinately cheery news to Democrats, however, Zogby adds: "For the first time in my polling this year, Mr. Bush lined up his Republican ducks in a row by receiving 90 percent support of his own party, went ahead among Independents, and now leads by double-digits among key groups like investors. Also for the first time the President now leads among Catholics. Mr. Kerry is on the ropes."
About three months ago I started betting friends and colleagues $5 that the polls were missing the volume and intensity of anti-Bush sentiment in the land, and that Kerry would win by a margin that few if any of the pre-election surveys foresaw. Stupid me. The betting window is hereby closed. I made the wager knowing that Kerry would run a lackluster campaign, but I had--still have--the hunch that there is enough Bush-hate out there to overcome a multitude of sins on the Democrats' part. Fatalistic as I am, though, I did not bargain on the worst campaign ever run by a Democratic presidential candidate. Kerry is worse than a doormat; a doormat doesn't disappear from your stoop for months at a time. When the Republicans began their loud, dishonest, and largely unanswered assault on Kerry's war record last month, one of the questions bandied around was whether John Kerry had ever been in Cambodia during the Vietnam war, as he claimed. It would have been more germane to ask, How do we know he's not still there?