The Bush versus Kerry Air War

By Darrell M. West


On March 4th, President George W. Bush opened his general election campaign with a television advertising barrage against Democrat John Kerry.  In an unprecedented early ad expenditure, Bush attacked Kerry’s record on defense spending, terrorism, and taxes. 


In return, Kerry has criticized Bush for the millions of jobs lost over the last three years and poor leadership on the Iraq war.  In his eyes, the incumbent president has squandered a massive budget surplus and presided over a failed economic policy.


In this report, I discuss the ad battle between the two presidential candidates.  What are their respective strategies?  How is their advertising affecting voters?  What role will independent candidate Ralph Nader play in the election?


The Bush Ad Strategy


In March and April, Bush spent around $40 million on ads.  By the time of the GOP convention in New York City, he is likely to spend another $40 million on advertisements.  Between Labor Day and Election Day, Bush probably will devote another $45 million to television commercials.  This will give him an election year total of $125 million in ad expenditures.


The amount of ad money spent early in the general election is unprecedented.  The conventional wisdom is that candidates should save their money for late in the campaign when undecided voters are tuning into the election.  According to this theory, early advertising money is wasted because the swing voters are not paying attention and the people who decide early tend to be strong partisans who are not influenced by advertisements.


However, in 1996, President Bill Clinton surprised the experts by running ads more than a year before the general election in which he portrayed the Republican-controlled Congress and Speaker Newt Gingrich as extremists.  Top Republican contender Robert Dole was shown so often with Gingrich that the two came to be seen in the eyes of some voters as virtual Siamese twins.


Clinton’s easy re-election that year convinced observers that early advertising could be effective if it set the agenda for the entire campaign and produced major doubts about the opposition.  It suggested a need to revise the conventional wisdom that early ads were wasted money.


In spending such a large amount of money on advertising early in the campaign, Bush is attempting to replicate the Clinton strategy.  The president hopes to set the tone of the race and shape public impressions of Kerry.  Outside of his native region of New England, Kerry is not well known by the general public. This gives Bush, who has clear strengths and weaknesses due to his incumbent status, a chance to portray Kerry in the most unfavorable light.


Republicans view Kerry as vulnerable in three areas:  soft on defense and terrorism, a big spending and tax supporting liberal, and wishy-washy on the issues.  Of course, there is tension between points two and three.  Kerry cannot be both dogmatically liberal, yet wishy-washy on the issues.  Eventually, the Bush team will have to decide whether Kerry is more vulnerable on liberalism or being wishy-washy.  It will not be able to maintain both lines of attack indefinitely.


The Bush team already has attacked Kerry in each of these areas.  It has run ads claiming Kerry voted against needed funding for American troops, that he has voted to raise taxes dozens of times, and that he has changed his mind on several different subjects.


The last time a presidential candidate set off such a barrage of negative ads against an opponent was in 1988 when Republican George Herbert Walker Bush attacked Michael Dukakis and 1964 when Democratic Lyndon Johnson did the same thing to Barry Goldwater.   In both of these cases, the aggressive advertising campaign paid off in electoral victories for the particular candidate.


The Kerry Ad Strategy


Early advertising was a luxury Kerry did not have.  Unlike Bush, who faced no nomination challenger, Kerry had many rivals including Howard Dean, John Edwards, and Richard Gephardt.  The long and volatile Democratic contest soaked up all of Kerry’s early financial resources and at one point in the fall when his candidacy was sinking fast forced him to borrow millions against his Boston real estate. 


Kerry did not seal his nomination until early March.  This prevented him from undertaking the research and raising the additional money required to run ads promoting himself and criticizing President Bush.   It was nearly a month before Kerry’s campaign responded with their own ads (although some Democratic groups were advertising against Bush) and the size of their ad buy (around $10 million) paled in comparison to that of the president.


Kerry’s strategic situation was very different from Bush’s.  The Democrat is not well known nationally and he has to raise his name recognition at the same time he criticizes Bush’s record.  And he has a lot less money to support his candidacy than does Bush.


The Kerry campaign sees several points of vulnerability in Bush’s record:  several million jobs lost over the past three years, massive budget deficits, tax cuts that have disproportionately benefited the wealthy, an Iraq war that has gone far less smoothly than the administration had predicted, and a governing record well to the right of many Americans. 


The Democrat’s opening ads attacked Bush’s economic stewardship and argued that the big deficits and the massive job losses were due to poor policies, not the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, as suggested by Republicans.  Rather than being the victim of international circumstances, Kerry claimed Bush had made a good situation far worse.  


Historically, American elections are more likely to be decided on domestic, economic issues than foreign policy.  This year’s race has been unusual in its heavy emphasis on the Iraq war.  Perhaps the 2004 race will break the typical mold and become a referendum on the incumbent’s domestic and foreign policy. 


Ad Effects on Voters


The most unusual feature of this race is the length of the general election campaign.  Unlike most years, when the battle lasts a few months, this time the general campaign will be eight months long.  It will be the longest general election campaign in American history.


In assessing the first two months of this race, Bush garnered a slight edge in terms of voter support.   Bush started his advertising attack down by 4-5 percentage points against Kerry, but ended the two-month period ahead of Kerry by 4-5 points.  This suggests the Bush ads and the rebounding economy produced an 8-10 point turnaround in public support.


Bush’s rebound over the last two months is noteworthy because it occurred during a time when the Iraq news has not been good.  Large numbers of American soldiers continue to die and there have been civil uprisings in several different parts of Iraq. 


Yet even with dismal war news, the rebounding domestic economy appears to be pushing Bush’s numbers up above Kerry.  More voters say they trust the future economy to Bush than to Kerry.  Even with the substantial job losses and the massive budget deficits, Americans see Bush as a strong leader.


An analysis of national polls before and after the Bush ad expenditures in March and April demonstrates how Republicans made progress in defining Kerry.  Several surveys have shown that impressions of how principled Kerry is and whether he tells voters what they want to hear have moved in a negative direction.  By a sizeable margin, voters believe Kerry is not very principled and that Bush is a strong leader who says what he thinks regardless of the political consequences.


Even more telling, on the crucial dimension of feeling the candidate is caring and compassionate, long a Democratic advantage over Republican presidential candidates, Bush runs pretty close to Kerry in voter perceptions.  Not only has Bush defined Kerry in some negative ways, he has inoculated himself at least so far in having voters think he is unprincipled, opportunistic, and uncaring as a leader.  Unless Kerry turns around those voter views of the president, it will be a tough race for him to win. 


Bush’s support is surprising because in various national surveys, anywhere from 55 to 60 percent of voters state they think the country is headed in the wrong direction.  Typically, when a majority feels that way, it signals deep trouble for an incumbent president.


So far, though, Kerry has not managed to take advantage of those negative feelings and get voters to blame Bush for their view that the country is headed in the wrong direction.  For Kerry to win, it is vital he link negative perceptions of national performance to the Bush Administration.


The Nader Wild-Card


Third-party or independent candidates who run a second time generally receive about half the vote they did the first time around.  Since Ralph Nader got 3.8 percent of the 2000 popular vote, he is likely to earn about two percent of the vote in 2004.  If history is any indication, he may simply drift into oblivion and be a non-factor in the campaign.


However, there is one scenario under which Nader could become more important.  Sometimes, when a campaign between two major candidates turns very negative, voters get disenchanted and turn to the third candidate, who has not run negative commercials, and support that person.  A vitriolic campaign between Bush and Kerry could redound to Nader’s benefit and boost his numbers above the usual expectation. 


The problem in this situation, from Kerry’s standpoint, is that more of the Nader vote is likely to come from Kerry than Bush supporters.  This is the reason Bush feels no incentive to rein in its negative attacks on Kerry.  If Kerry does not respond to the attacks, he risks being defined by the Bush apparatus and losing the campaign.  However, if he is drawn into a negative campaign, he may lose votes to Nader from people turned off by both Kerry and Bush.  It is a scenario Kerry has to be very careful to avoid if he is going to beat the incumbent president.


Eighteen States


Right now, there are 18 states in play for the general election.  Most of the other states are either “blue” or “red” states whose votes are completely predictable.  Both candidates’ advertising efforts are focusing on these swing states in the Midwest and Border South states.   Nearly all their fall electoral appeals will focus on these areas.  Kerry probably will pick a vice-presidential candidate from one of these states.


The rest of the country will not experience the presidential campaign.  The other 32 states will not be the object of political advertising, direct mail, or candidate visits.  It will be an election in which one-third of the country has a frenzied campaign, while two-thirds does not.