NEWS

Iraq shadow on US elections

The US presidential elections have long been of interest to more than just the American electorate, but very few people follow them closely enough to see the strange dynamics that can determine the victor. An expert analyst of presidential elections, Professor Richard A. Katula is currently in Athens to lecture at Athens University under the aegis of the Fulbright Foundation. His speciality is the art of rhetoric and the US elections. A professor of communications and education at Boston’s Northeastern University, Katula has written or co-written three books on the art of rhetoric and the American political system. In an interview with Kathimerini English Edition, Katula analyzed developments in the race between President George W. Bush and Democratic candidate John Kerry, explaining how the question of Iraq influences both of them, as well as what the other crucial campaign issues are. The presidential elections are not far off, the Democratic convention is being held in Boston in July, where it appears that John Kerry’s candidacy will be confirmed. The Republicans hold their own convention in New York in late August, where they will formally approve the candidacy of President Bush. At the moment, the two rivals appear to be on an equal footing. What will sway the final result? I think that between now and the conventions, obviously the big date is June 30. I think June 30 is now becoming as much a symbolic and psychological event as much as it is a real event in terms of the handing over of sovereignty to the Iraqi people. Everything I read, everything I hear, suggests that both the public and the administration are looking for a legitimate beginning of an exit strategy. Everything I pick up suggests June 30 is going to be sort of a logical opportunity for them to seize. So Iraq has been exacting a high price? The problem with what is happening in Iraq for the Bush campaign is that it has dried up some of his fund raising. They had budgeted their advertising based upon a level of funding from now until the end of October, but I think the prisoner abuse scandal and the whole Iraqi situation is hurting him. In April, John Kerry raised a record $60 million for his campaign. So I think that what just three weeks ago was looking like an overwhelming advantage for Bush in terms of fund raising – which means the ability to do advertising, which of course has a longstanding causal relationship between advertising and winning – I think now it looks like Kerry and Bush are going to be about even in terms of money and in terms of their ability to run advertising. In April, Bush was running a lot of negative advertisements in states like Ohio and West Virginia and a lot of his support was coming from negative advertising. The question now is can he continue to run advertising at the level that he has been running it, that is, at $10 million a week, and secondly, whether Kerry can compete with that advertising by running his own advertising. So all the downward arrows are facing Bush right now. His approval numbers are down – 41-42 percent, which is not so good. At the same time, there are the conventions coming up. The Democratic Convention in the last week of July and the Republican Convention in late August. You have to remember the Republicans have the advantage in that they get to go second. They have more time to study what was done in the Democratic Convention then trump them with their own convention speech and so on. Then, of course, you have the debates in October. Those have not been negotiated yet but most scholars would say the 2000 presidential campaign turned on the first debate. Gore lost significant numbers and Bush picked up those numbers. Probably a seven-point swing altogether for debate No. 1. It was like 50-40 going in, but by the end of the end of the three debates, Bush was up maybe 47-44, after being down 50-40. And most of that damage was done by the first debate, by the press coverage of it and by the coverage done by the late-night comedians. Briefly speaking, the polls don’t mean a lot right now, I think. Lots is left to happen, lots of things can happen. Precedent-wise, has an incumbent president ever been so low in the polls at this point and come back to win? No. These are the kinds of numbers that his father was looking at in 1992 and, as you know, he did not win. In 1980, I believe Jimmy Carter’s numbers were a little bit higher – that was an incredibly close campaign. What killed Carter was the Iranian hostages issue. But I think his overall job approval numbers were a little higher. The approval number for a president in May is quite indicative of the percentage of the popular vote that person’s going to get. So as of right now, Bush is looking at about 44 percent of the popular vote, which means there has to be a very strategic popular vote for him to win. Which happened last time? It happened last time. He got the votes in the right places. Is this a three-way race. Is Ralph Nader playing any role? Nader is at 6 percent in the polls. My guess is that Nader can still hurt Kerry, especially if it’s a very close race, the way he hurt them in Florida in 2000 and the way he hurt them in New Hampshire. If it’s a close race and it comes down to four states, Nader has enough money to play. If it’s an 18-state race he can’t spread himself out so much because of his finances. But if it comes down to four states, Nader could be a problem for Kerry. You’ve got to remember that Nader is the only one of the three on whose website you see a very clear «get out of Iraq» strategy – in six months. And there’s a small percentage of people for whom that’s the person they’re looking for. Are there likely to be any surprises at the conventions? Is there any possibility that the two apparent candidates will not emerge from the convention as candidates? Probably not, but stranger things have happened. If you remember in the 1968 campaign, Lyndon Johnson’s numbers were plummeting during the Tet Offensive and all of a sudden, without telling anyone, he went on national television and said he did not plan to seek re-election, that he was too busy running the war. The only thing that I am suggesting is that if Bush’s numbers were to go under 40 – which I think could only happen if something really big were to happen – for instance, if somehow or other it’s shown that he was aware of the policy on interrogation or if somehow the 9/11 commission pins some blame on him for 9/11, if those were to happen and his numbers were to drop under 40, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that you could see a Lyndon Johnson speech of 1967. At some point, people’s interests will trump their loyalty. And, of course, the Republicans know just from the way the Democrats are licking their lips they have a great candidate there in the wings, John McCain. There’s a 99 percent chance that Bush will run but it’s not over until August, when the Republicans have their convention. They way the system works is there have been primaries going on and all of those delegates have been selected… They are committed to Bush for the first two ballots. They’re not legally committed, they’re morally committed. A third possibility is if June 30 goes very, very badly. The prisoner abuse scandal, 9/11 and this. These are the three possibilities that could drive his numbers under 40. So is Iraq the primary issue right now in the election? According to what we see in all the polls, I would rank them as Iraq, 9/11 and the war on terror and the economy as 1, 2, and 3. Then you get other issues, social issues – gay marriage, affirmative action, Medicare, the usual suspects. Everybody’s talking about Iraq. People are really disgusted by what’s happening, by what the guards did. They’re embarrassed, they’re humiliated. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily blaming Bush, but if he gets touched by it in any way, he’s got a problem.