Even as President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry cross each other’s tracks through the same battleground states, their strategies for winning November’s election appear to be diverging.
In campaign appearances and advertising purchases, both are still intensely courting the relatively small number of undecided or loosely committed voters.
But the Bush campaign’s strategy is focused much more on the possibility that the race will be decided primarily by mobilizing the party faithful in closely fought states, not persuading swing voters.
“Motivating Republicans this year is as important, or possibly more important, than reaching the persuadable voters,” said Matthew Dowd, the Bush campaign’s chief strategist.
Indeed, Dowd said one of the campaign’s top goals is to ensure that Republicans cast as large a share of November’s vote as Democrats. Typically, Democrats outnumber Republicans in presidential elections.
Some Democrats argue that Bush’s attention to his base signals concern about potential defections. But there’s no statistical evidence for that assertion -- polls routinely show him supported by 90% or more of GOP voters. Instead, most political experts agree Bush’s focus on core Republicans is aimed at increasing turnout and widening his winning margins in places where he is already strong -- the same strategy that powered the GOP to unusual gains in the 2002 midterm elections.
“The Bush campaign believes that there are functionally no swing voters, that campaigns are about the mobilization of your base and expanding the turnout of your base,” said a veteran GOP operative not working for the president’s campaign.
The president’s emphasis on stoking the Republican base is evident in his campaign’s advertising strategy: Bush has heavily outspent Kerry in about 10 media markets in safely Republican areas across the country, and he is making large ad purchases on cable television networks that reach core GOP constituencies.
“From a Bush standpoint, it appears they want to turn out their people first, and worry about the undecided second or last,” said Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, a firm that tracks advertising spending for The Times.
And, although his campaign says Bush is spending at least as much time in contested communities as Kerry, some analysts in both parties say that an unusual number of the president’s campaign appearances have been in places already safely in his corner, from Traverse City, Mich., to Pensacola, Fla.
“When you have the president in Pensacola and [similar] markets
Kerry, by contrast, in his travel, message and ad purchases, has divided his effort more evenly between energizing core Democrats and wooing less ideological swing voters, say many observers in both parties.
The Bush campaign strategy fits with a presidency that often has appeared more intent on deepening than broadening support.
On most major issues -- from tax cuts and environmental protection to the decision to invade Iraq without explicit U.N. authorization -- Bush has embraced policies that draw much better marks from his base than swing voters.
Democratic operatives assert that the president’s efforts are driven not so much by his strength among Republicans as his weakness among undecided voters.
“Bush isn’t going to get many of them, no matter what,” said John Sasso, general election manager at the Democratic National Committee, citing widespread pessimism about the economy and the country’s overall direction, as evident in polling answers from persuadable voters. “He has only two choices: He can either tear Kerry down and try to make him entirely unacceptable [to those voters], or he can try to jack up his base vote. And that’s what you are seeing.”
Bush advisors reject the idea that they are downplaying swing voters and point out that moderate Republicans will dominate the prime-time speaking slots at the party convention.
But senior GOP strategists acknowledge that the campaign thinks expanded margins among core Republican constituencies could provide Bush his best chance of winning if most voters who are still undecided late in the campaign follow the usual pattern and break against the incumbent.
“If the concern is the undecided are going to break the other way, how do you overcome that?” said one Republican strategist familiar with White House thinking. “One approach is to try to win over the undecideds. The other is to try to get out more of the people who are voting for you 90% of the time.”
The modern presidential campaign is such a vast and lengthy enterprise that Bush and Kerry can lavish time and money on pursuing both their base and swing voters.
Each is aiming much of his advertising budget at the same closely fought communities, such as Orlando and Tampa, Fla.; Des Moines; Pittsburgh; and Dayton, Ohio. And though Kerry has devoted much of his post-convention bus and train tour to conservative-leaning rural areas, he’s also found time for the same sort of base-tending his campaign accuses Bush of over-emphasizing.
Yet a contrast is apparent in the two campaign’s assumptions about how the election will be won.
“This is one time the two presidential campaigns have fundamentally different strategies about winning,” said former Kerry campaign manager Jim Jordan, now a spokesman for America Coming Together, a Democratic activist group.
Like the GOP, Democrats are mounting a major effort to identify and turn out base voters. But most top Democratic strategists still expect swing voters to decide the election.
One senior Democratic strategist said the party was anticipating a large increase in participation this year that could swell turnout to as much as 118 million -- more than 10% higher than the 105 million in 2000. The strategist said the party expected that much of the increase would come from independent and less partisan voters.
That assumption helps explain Kerry’s tone in the campaign. For several months, he has focused more on reassurance than persuasion -- more on trying to establish his credentials as a centrist (especially on national security) than on articulating an aggressive case against Bush.
Similarly, he has concentrated his advertising on swing communities and emphasized positive messages in his ads (though independently funded groups supporting him have spent heavily on ads criticizing Bush).
This approach has stirred some quiet dissent among liberals. Some worry Kerry is allowing Bush to maintain the offensive in much of the campaign debate, and that the Massachusetts senator is not providing a contrast sharp enough to fully motivate the Democratic base.
But the Kerry camp, and many independent Democratic strategists, defend the emphasis on swing voters, arguing that antipathy to Bush alone guarantees a large Democratic turnout.
Bush strategist Dowd says the campaign is also anticipating a turnout increase, but only to about 112 million voters. And he’s less certain than Democrats that the remaining undecided and persuadable voters will decide the result.
He noted that even though polls show most persuadable voters expressing pessimism about the country’s direction, many of them are whites who regularly attend church -- a group that strongly backed Bush in the 2000 election.
It is an article of faith among political consultants in both parties that voters undecided late in a race trend against the incumbent. But given the conflicting impulses the polls find among these voters this year, Dowd predicted they would not break decisively for either Bush or Kerry. And many, he predicted, might not vote at all. In such a scenario, he said, turning out the party base would grow in importance.
With that emphasis, the Bush campaign appears to hope it can replicate the experience of 2002. In states such as Minnesota, Missouri and Georgia, Republicans made unexpected gains in the Senate and House mid-term elections largely by swelling their margins in GOP-leaning areas.
Post-election surveys in 2002 showed that Republicans outnumbered Democrats among voters, 38% to 35%. In 2000, self-identified Democrats outnumbered Republicans, 39% to 35%, according to exit polls.
“My hope is that [turnout this year] is even,” Dowd said.
Other GOP strategists warn it may be difficult to achieve that goal, with surveys this year showing Democrats holding a small but steady advantage over Republicans in party identification by voters. But even skeptics acknowledge the Bush campaign is showing impressive discipline -- through get-out-the-vote programs and a message emphasizing tax cuts, traditional values, military strength and other core Republican themes -- in attempting to hit its goal of turnout parity.
“The merits about the strategy can certainly be debated,” said the veteran GOP operative unaffiliated with the campaign. “The precision with which they are executing the strategy has to be admired.”
Bush’s advertising focus is another element of the strategy. Although his campaign has spent much of its money matching Kerry’s advertising buys in swing communities, the Republicans also have spent heavily in several GOP-leaning media markets where Kerry has invested little or no money.
For instance, Bush has aired nearly 15,000 commercials in the conservative Florida panhandle, even though the area market gave Al Gore only 30% of its votes in 2000, according to ad monitoring data provided to The Times by an independent group supporting Kerry. The group asked not to be named.
The same pattern is evident in places such as Sioux City, Iowa, Ft. Smith, Ark., Yakima, Wash., and markets reaching rural Missouri: heavy Bush buys against virtually no Kerry purchases in Republican-leaning communities.
Bush also has spent much more than Kerry on cable television buys targeted at sympathetic constituencies, like those watching networks emphasizing country music, fishing and hunting, and NASCAR racing, according to data from TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Some Democrats see the same strategy in Bush’s travel, which has taken him in recent months to a number of heavily Republican areas, including Sioux City, the Florida Panhandle, and Berkeley County, W.Va.
Dowd responded by saying his figures showed that since the Democratic convention last month, Bush has devoted a greater percentage of his time than Kerry to campaigning in swing communities. Indeed, he said, Bush’s travels have included plenty of stops in highly contested terrain, such as Tampa; St. Paul, Minn.; and Davenport, Iowa.
Some Bush supporters worry that focusing on Republican areas, the approach that worked in 2002, may be less applicable in 2004 because so many more people -- including swing voters -- cast ballots in a presidential election than a mid-term election.
“I admire their ruthless execution,” said the veteran Republican independent of the campaign, “but it’s a scary way to win an election.”