Sadly, the Election Will Be Televised

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You can tell a lot about a Presidential campaign just by watching television. Sure, candidates need to build organizations in all 50 states, mobilize get out the vote efforts and use mailings and phone banks. But a candidate’s ads provide crucial clues about how the campaign is doing and what strategy they’re employing.

The TV ads President Bush’s campaign is running right now should be making Republicans nervous. For two months, Bush has spent more than $60 million painting John Kerry as a tax-and-spend liberal who’s soft on defense. Except for a few positive spots in March, the Bush media team has been all attack, all the time. They ran a sepia-toned Buster Keaton parody attacking Kerry for supporting “wacky” tax increases on gas several years ago. But their favorite theme is that Kerry is soft on defense, not a man to be trusted with the Presidency during the wars on terror and in Iraq. The latest ad shows U.S. forces on a desert battlefield while weapons Kerry voted against in a 1991 omnibus defense bill disappear, as a voiceover says Kerry “has repeatedly opposed weapons vital to winning the war on terror.” (The ad forgets to mention that Dick Cheney also opposed those weapons.)

Poll numbers reveal that this strategy is working. Most voters knew little about Kerry when he locked up the Democratic nomination in March, but since then his unfavorability ratings have grown by approximately 20% in several polls. When the Wall Street Journal and NBC asked voters this week who would do a better job of keeping the country safe, they chose Bush 44%-26%.

But the numbers also hold bad news for the President. His approval ratings continue to sink to the lowest levels of his presidency. When asked how he has performed on key issues like Iraq, the war on terrorism, and the economy, voters give him even lower marks. Democratic voter turnout in the primaries earlier in the year, was higher than it had been in years, which suggests a high Democratic turnout in November.

By putting most of its efforts into dragging down Kerry’s numbers, the Bush campaign is doing little to try and raise the President’s. This is a big change from 2000, when Bush ran on a clear list of ambitious campaign proposals and an optimistic message of compassionate conservatism. Sure, his operation also spent a good deal of energy amplifying voters’ doubts about Al Gore’s honesty, but Bush consistently said he was “a uniter, not a divider.” Those sunny themes are nowhere to be found now, and Bush hasn’t made any ambitious proposals for his second term. His slogan may be “steady leadership in changing times,” but the tone is, You may not be happy with everything I’ve done, but the other guy is far worse.

Any Democrat who could assure voters he’ll keep the country safe and put it on a more hopeful track could make it obvious Bush is in trouble. Kerry has yet to prove he can. He spent the last two months trying to respond to Bush’s attacks tit-for-tat, but this just put the fight on Bush’s chosen battleground. Last week Kerry finally released a biographical ad, highlighting his public service and his tours of duty in Vietnam. In focus groups the campaign conducted recently, most voters had no idea Kerry served in Vietnam. Those who did thought he sat at a desk. Kerry’s new ad is an effective start, but it is just a start.

If both of these candidates continue to fail to offer a positive vision of where they want to take this country, this race may quickly turn into a mudslinging fight. Voters will have to choose which candidate they distrust least; the partisan divide will only grow larger. And many Americans will most likely change the channel on election night and skip the results.