A Wider Lens: Out of touch, and running out of steam

By Aaron Okin
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, September 15, 2003

John Edwards likes to make people feel important and good about themselves, and showing up here in Tucson on Monday to show that he and his running mate think Tucson is important was a genuinely nice gesture.

Why? Because for the short while that Edwards spent at the Tucson Convention Center, he gained nothing more than making those assembled Democrats feel good about themselves in the face of reality. It was just another example of bad strategy in a long, poorly-run campaign.

With less than two months left before the election and debates looming on the horizon, there seem to be fewer battleground states than there were a few weeks back, thanks to an increase in support for the president that was starting even prior to the Republican convention. Arizona is one such state where the pre-convention polls showed a tight race, with Kerry leading the president, only to have that small lead turn up missing after a wave of newfound intelligence hit voters.

The Arizona Republic last week released numbers indicating a 16-point lead for the president in Arizona, which the Democratic campaign machine is brushing aside in order to portray Arizona as still in play.

In a recent interview with "Time," John Kerry was quoted as saying, "I don't know what you're talking about in terms of the Bush bounce. This is a very close race, and I'm not somebody that runs around worried about polls," when asked about Bush's post-convention surging in the polls. That kind of response is pretty surprising coming from a candidate who decided to forego the customary pause in campaigning during the opponent's convention in order to get back on the road right in the middle of the Republican gathering in New York.

But really, maybe it wasn't the poll numbers that caused John Kerry to do that. Maybe it was just poor judgment, influenced heavily by political instincts that go unchecked by tact.

The whole idea of pretending not to listen to polls and running a principled campaign is nice, but it's clear that polls matter and influence how politicians behave and that, with regard to how the Kerry campaign is dealing with Arizona and other states, they play a direct role.

While Bush maintains a double-digit lead here, the Kerry campaign still maintains that it is going to put valuable time and campaign funds into advertising in Arizona, leaving it on its updated list of battleground states. The campaign has said, however, that Arizona is more of a secondary concern, but that there will likely be a large publicity blitz late in the campaign season because they have somehow, without the help of polls, found that that late-in-the-game strategy will work well with a lot of voters in the states in question.

While Arizona has grown in national importance in a number of ways - two influential senators rather than just one, a fast-growing population with the fifth-largest city in the country, and even being selected as the site of the third and final presidential debate all act to raise the state's stature relative to other states - it seems like a very bad strategy to maintain even a secondary focus on this state if you are the Democratic nominee for president. Arizonans' selection of Clinton in 1996 was an anomaly, and when two Democrats were elected governor and attorney general, it was not the first time such a thing had happened - they don't necessarily indicate an overwhelming political realignment in the state, which could place John Kerry and his minions chasing after an imaginary public viewpoint.

In fact, it seems based on this election that the state is still solidly right-of-center. The Democrats are still failing to put up viable candidates for the House and Senate outside of the typically Democratic districts and the president looks headed to an easy victory.

As support for the president surges across the country, it would be wise for the Kerry campaign to better invest their money in states that are actually in play, and to thing about using the candidates' time better. The local press yesterday morning seemed focused more on Edwards' post-speech discussion of Bush's (apparently failed) Mexico policy. This was not even covered in his speech, while things like health care, education, and the war against terrorism that supposedly form their platform are not qualified with anything more than really creative one-liners like "W is for Wrong." If Mexico is important to Tucson voters (which press coverage seems to indicate) it shows a real disconnect between the Democratic campaign and the voters.

Maybe it's about time to look at the polls, Mr. Kerry.

Aaron Okin is a regional development and political science senior. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.