It's time for Bush to get worried

By Frank Luntz

Financial Times

Published: October 15 2004

The big story of the US presidential election up to Thursday was how few undecided voters there were. Now the final presidential debate is over, these voters have essentially made up their minds - and it is George W.Bush who should be worried.

If John Kerry is elected the 44th president, it will be because of a single night in Miami, Florida, when he came to debate and Mr Bush came to - well, no one is quite sure. The double-digit lead that Gallup polls, long considered an authority for presidential polling, gave Mr Bush after the Republican convention was fully erased by that fateful 90-minute confrontation.

Step by step, debate by debate, John Kerry has addressed and removed many remaining doubts among uncommitted voters. My own polling research after each debate suggests a rather bleak outlook for the Bush candidacy: many who still claim to be undecided are in fact leaning to Mr Kerry and are about ready to commit.

Can Mr Bush turn the tide in just 18 days? Absolutely, but his candidacy must address voters who still harbour economic and national security concerns. But that requires a fundamental shift in the presidents strategy and message. Asserting that the economy is strong and Iraq a success is simply not credible to the majority of Americans or to the stubborn 5 per cent who remain uncommitted.

The first thing Mr Bush should remember is to forget about using statistics to prove the economy is on the right track. Uncommitted voters, who tend to fall below the US average in education and income, just do not buy it. They feel squeezed by reduced employee benefits and higher prices. The president must articulate their frustration and, in the words of Bill Clinton, feel their pain. But that is not enough. Mr Bush has explicitly to outline his plan to improve voters daily lives.

From the outsourcing of US jobs overseas to rising budget deficits and spiralling costs of petrol and health insurance, Americas remaining uncommitted voters want more solutions and less rhetoric. The candidate who offers more of the former stands a very good chance of winning. Here, Mr Kerry has the advantage. In the first two debates, he perfected an effective technique of agreeing with the president on the problems and the principles behind them but then disagreeing on solutions and execution. In all three debates, uncommitted voters preferred Mr Kerrys consensus-building style to Mr Bushs confrontational approach.

Mr Bush, to recover the voters he lost in the debates, must put the domestic policy debate in the wider context of the war on terror where he is still more trusted than his opponent. He has repeatedly missed opportunities to pivot from Iraq to terrorism, and he never effectively drew the link between national security and economic security. If Mr Kerry repeats his line that the president should not have chosen tax cuts over national security, Mr Bush should counter by noting Mr Kerrys lacklustre 20-year record in the Senate. That is a proposition that swing voters could readily sign up to.

On the economy, Mr Bush cannot afford simply to defend his record. He must offer hope for the future. As statistics do not work, he must talk about the economy through stories of real Americans employees, small business owners and family farmers explaining how a second Bush term would boost the economy. Outsourcing, whether Republicans like it or not, is the key economic issue of 2004. The Bush administration got off to a bad start by appearing to defend the practice as a beneficial part of free trade. While that may be good economics, it is terrible politics. The presidents current response, to offer better education as the solution, isno solace to voters in swing statessuch as Ohio who have lost their jobs.

The president started well at articulating a Republican solution to outsourcing in his second debate when he said: America must be the best place in the world to do business. But without more detail, he is just not credible. Better education is a start, but he needs to talk about how oppressive taxation, regulation and litigation systems are sending jobs overseas and how he can fix that. Another big issue is healthcare. Here, Mr Bush repeatedly scored points by focusing on how rising medical liability premiums are driving up healthcare and health insurance costs.

On certain key issues, Mr Bush would do well to position himself in contrast to the special interests in Washington who oppose reform. On education, on taxes, on energy as well as on healthcare, the president sits on the opposite side to such interests. If he outlines his plans for a second term, he could paint himself as the reformer to Mr Kerrys defence of the status quo.

Mr Bush was right to stop the angry, dismissive facial gestures that hurt him in the first debate. But if he wants to be the speaker rather than spectator at the next presidential inauguration, he will need to turn in a perfect performance every day from now through the election perfection that has eluded him so far.

The writer is a pollster and president of the Luntz Research Companies