In late June, all the buzz in Washington was about the week-long funeral of Ronald Reagan and how much of a "bounce" the Reagan connection could give President George W. Bush's re-election bid. Ironically, however, the Reagan "bounce" might just help the other guy -- Democratic Sen. John Kerry.
The president could lose his hold on up to 20 percent of the people who say they'd vote for him thanks to an issue that gained momentum in the weeks following former President Reagan's death. According to a new poll done exclusively for American Demographics by Zogby International, if Kerry were to announce a major initiative in stem cell research to cure diseases such as Alzheimer's, which killed Reagan, Parkinson's, diabetes and spinal injuries, Kerry would gain a whopping 11 percent of Bush's voters. What's more, another 9 percent of Bush supporters say they'd switch to a third party, not vote, or be undecided.
"This is the 'sleeper issue' of this campaign," says Bob Beckel, a former Democratic presidential candidate strategist. "It's more than just stem cell research--it's the symbolism of announcing a plan to eradicate major diseases, and part of the Baby Boomers' health care crisis." There is a growing public desire for the government to do more to cure diseases that have put the Baby Boomer generation in a squeeze, parenting their own parents while raising children, and struggling to pay for and get health insurance. "In polling, a switch to the competition is a two-fer. So, a switch of 11 percent directly from Bush to Kerry is a total change of 22 percent," Beckel says. In an election where most polls show a dead heat, so significant a change could swing the results.
"Politically and scientifically, it's a home run for Kerry to call for stem cell science initiatives," says Howard Fineman, Newsweek's veteran political commentator, "Americans had a crash course in what Alzheimer's does to everyone involved, during the week of Reagan's funeral," Fineman adds, noting that magazines such as Newsweek, sell out on the stands whenever there's a health issue cover.
The poll was fairly unique in election surveys. Zogby asked over 1,000 potential voters to choose between Bush and Kerry, and then asked those who made a decision, what it would take to change their votes. A total of 912 respondents who picked either Bush or Kerry, with a slight margin for Kerry over Bush, were presented with five possible scenarios that could plausibly occur prior to the election on November 2. The "what ifs" included issues such as the economy, jobs and the war in Iraq; a stem cell research plan; Bush dumping Cheney; and a wild card: the impact of Bill Clinton on the hustings.
"It's a dream poll for political strategists," Beckel says.
"Asking people what would get them off their mark."
"This is a very interesting poll, as it touches on so many 'what ifs,' says John McCaslin, columnist for The Washington Times. The author of the upcoming book Inside the Beltway, McCaslin says, "Washington political columnists don't normally see this in presidential polling."
"If the presidential race is as close as the pollsters are telling us, a point or two shift to either side could sway the election." McCaslin says. A Kerry move on stem cell cures "might not be far off, given the interest surrounding Ron Reagan's much-heralded appearance at the Democratic National Convention," he concludes.
Several political pros interviewed are shocked by the strength of the answers in stem cell research. Norman Ornstein, TV commentary and longtime political author says, "Their results were interesting and surprising. If you asked me what's likely to move voters, I would have said unemployment would move a large number of voters, but not many people said they would switch."
The stem cell response "certainly suggests on the GOP side that Bush has to worry about some tension within the party that is not so socially conservative," says Ornstein. "It strongly suggests that there are GOP moderates looking for a leader. Therefore, Kerry could capitalize on this issue."
But of course, Kerry can't use this issue to mobilize voters unless he personally takes a proactive position on the very disease that caused Reagan's tragic demise. Kerry, known as Mr. Cautious, has to be prodded to take a tough stand on anything, including hunger in America. He has a chance here, says Ornstein, "but he has to do something with it."
Meanwhile, John Zogby, himself, has been asked by Republicans what Bush might do to keep moderates happy, and Zogby has found that stem cell research is a surprisingly attractive issue. Zogby says that while Kerry mulls it over, he should worry that Bush will wake up, suddenly embrace Nancy Reagan publicly and warm to her cause.
The stem cell cure initiative wasn't the only unusual finding. One might have expected that a drop in unemployment would boost Bush; however, he only directly gained five percent, which includes a margin of error of 3 percent. "That is because Bush never 'owned' the economy as an issue, the way Reagan did," explains Beckel. He should know; Beckel ran 189 campaigns, and only failed in five, but one of them was the Titanic Walter Mondale loss to incumbent Ronald Reagan. "Because Bush hasn't made the economy his issue, as this poll shows, he won't get credit for improvements he might make," Beckel opines.
On the other hand, "Bush has taken ownership of terrorism and Iraq," says Beckel. They are Bush's issues to lose.
But James Taylor, author of The Visionary's Handbook and a former consultant at Yankelovich marketing research, sees Kerry as vulnerable in this poll. "This poll shows that Kerry is at whims of fate and Bush," says Taylor. "If you look at Bush's numbers, his are a lot tighter. Bush has a much more bullet-proof political base than Kerry.
"I'm fascinated that Bush has a sure victory coming out of Kerry's pocket if either Iraq pulls together, or if McCain or someone replaces Cheney, or frankly, in the event of there's a terrorist attack here," Taylor says. "All those issues have some degree of probability, such as Iraq showing signs of real governance. Those three all are Kerry killers. If they all happened, Kerry could lose by 12 percent.
"Bush's only real risk is that Kerry gets organized around a real national health plan with stem call research on disease, or if Bush loses control of inflation," Taylor says of the poll results. He also thinks Baby Boomers are being given too much credit here for caring about health care and their aging parents. "They want to live forever, and they don't wanna live 'old.' Stem cell research offers chances to reverse the aging process."
What happens if Bush dumps Vice President Dick Cheney for John McCain, we asked declared Bush and Kerry supporters. Bad news for Kerry: he loses 8 percent directly to Bush, and another 9 percent to the wilderness of "not sure" and "3rd party."
"That Cheney is a real drag on the ticket is significant," Taylor says. He can foresee Cheney announcing that his health problems have intervened. Bonnie Erbe, host of PBS's To The Contrary, said she could see Bush dumping Cheney at the last minute.
Overall, Erbe said, "What's going on out there with voters is that Bush has energized the left, and there's so much hate. Kerry is not the draw, but the lesser of two evils. Bush's position on stem cell research can be used as an example of Bush caving into evangelicals, even against the most conservative members of his own party, i.e. Sen. Orrin Hatch and Ronald Reagan's widow." Kerry should use this opening she says.
Beckel says Kerry should do it in a big way, announce the "new frontier" for America, as John F. Kennedy did, but instead of going to the moon, say "we're going to the laboratories." "It's a pro-life position," Beckel says, which Kerry can pound on.
William Frey of the Brookings Institution notes that this poll shows, "It may be time for Kerry to push the panic button and do something bold, take a stand. Yes, a failing economy could hurt Bush, but a better strategy for Kerry here is 'let's not wait, let's do something bold.' This poll says that there's some payoff in that for Kerry."
Like Taylor, Frey believes that without some proactive move, Kerry's fate rests too much on forces beyond his control. "A change by Bush in his vice president sends Kerry voters over to Bush, and real stability in Iraq sends them to Bush, so Kerry is at the mercy of these things," Frey says.
Bush definitely gains votes from Kerry in the event of another terrorist attack on US soil. An analyst who asked not to be quoted says this may be a reason that Homeland Security leaders mention new, nebulous threats every time Kerry gets momentum. Political science professor Steffen Schmidt, host of the Iowa radio show Dr. Politics says that "After the 9-11 commission report, I cannot imagine that fear of terrorism and the question of who can best deal with terrorists is not the number one concern of voters."
One democratic analyst, who asked not be identified, says that if there were another terrorist attack here, democrats could argue that terrorism is Bush's issue; Bush has been in charge and he failed to make America safe.
But Taylor disagrees. "Anything dramatic in the war in Iraq or terrorism may redound to Bush," says Taylor, "then you get the 'don't change horses in mid-stream' syndrome. Even if there's a full-scale civil war in Iraq in September, it will focus the attention on the war, and people get distracted. So anything besides this slow-burning failure redounds to Bush's favor."
There were other surprises in the poll: First, Bush's support among Catholics, whom he is courting, is not that strong. And Bush, who is also wooing Hispanics aggressively, did not profit from a scenario in which he might announce looser visa/immigration restrictions on Mexicans and Central Americans.
As for The Return of the King--Bill Clinton-- to the spotlight, our analysts say: "Watch out." Although 50 percent of all respondents said it would not affect them, Clinton's appearance could cost Kerry 6 percent of his voters to Bush. Clinton helps Kerry among African Americans, and may increase their turnout; and helps Kerry among 25- to 34-year-olds. But Clinton also ensures that at least 25 percent of Bush voters dig in; he hurts Kerry among "east coast" voters, and kills Kerry support among the "Investor Class," of whom 29 percent say they would be much more likely to vote for Bush if Clinton popped up.
"This poll tells us two things," says Ornstein, "Clinton remains a polarizing figure, but he also remains a consequential figure." Schmidt says the poll suggests "Al Gore was right; Clinton is not at all a win-win asset."
Clinton has to be used "very carefully," says Frey. "Clinton does polarize the electorate even further. Republicans are much more likely to vote for Bush if Clinton comes in, but he doesn't help as much with Democrats, except strong partisans and African Americans.
"That means the Democrats have to strategically target where they use Clinton," Frey adds.
Several analysts suggested changes in the poll scenarios: that the question on Bush dropping Cheney as vice president should not have mentioned McCain, since that is unlikely in light of Bush's dislike of McCain. They also say we should have asked voters "what happens if we capture Osama Bin Laden?" And, instead of positing a civil war in Iraq, which is what we already have, we should have asked: what if an attack killed 100 or more Americans in a single day? And we should have developed a sub-group of veterans, to go with ethnic, income and racial blocs.
However, this poll is significant for finding the "soft" declared voters for each candidate, say Beckel, Frey and Ornstein.
"It's hard to change votes, it's admitting to failure," says Beckel. "That's why political consultants wish they could do more polls like this. You don't get many changes, but what you get signals hot button issues and dissatisfaction with a candidate in general, voters looking for an excuse to vote against him.
"That's what the campaign strategists need to know. "