Dubya Mystery: Polls At A Loss To Explain Race

“There are three kinds of lies,” Disraeli purportedly said. “Lies, damned lies and statistics.” The polls this week brought proof.

One hopes.

In case you were too timid to catch the latest, four national surveys of “likely voters” (CNN/ USA Today/Gallup, Time, Newsweek, ABC News/ Washington Post) have George W. Bush widening his lead over John Kerry—CNN/ USA Today/Gallup putting the margin at a landslide-territory eight points, a nine-point shift in a week, and the President’s highest level of support since Mr. Kerry clinched the nomination in March.

That’s the bad news.

Now the worse:

These numbers were gathered after Dubya’s third successive trip to the debate cleaners, during a week which saw: the price of oil touch $55 a barrel. The record federal deficit hit the legal national debt ceiling. Seniors panicked at the eminently preventable disappearance of half the flu vaccine. Even stranger than usual happenings in Iraq, including a platoon of Army Reservists refusing a direct order to undertake what was judged a “suicide mission.”

Any good news? Kinda.

Two other polls (Zogby and Rasmussen), report a tie—which at this point in a normal election cycle is not kissing your sister, but the White House goodbye. However, another poll puts John Kerry ahead by three points. Only catch: This survey’s done by Stan Greenberg, Bill Clinton’s former pollster.

Yet another poll, by the more independent-inclined Washington Post, puts Kerry four points up in 13 “battleground states.” You’d never know it, though, from the L.A. Times interactive Electoral Map, which as of press time had 19 “white states” with a total of 194 Electoral College votes “UP FOR GRABS.” Clicking enough blue to attain the magic 270 for Mr. Kerry requires Irish optimism; getting Mr. Bush past the threshold, on the other hand, is a snap.

So what do all these numbers mean?

In a normal election, the ball game. Normal, though, this one ain’t. Ask Newt Gingrich, whom Tom DeLay makes more missed by the hour. “If you don’t have some anxiety, you are not in touch with reality,” Newt said the other day. “We don’t understand this election. No one does.”

That goes for your correspondent, who’s traded examining poll results for reading Kafka, who knew a thing or two about the unreal and the surreal—both in ample supply this season.

Begin with Iraq, since it appears that’s what the election’s going to turn on, all the talk about health care, Social Security, taxes, jobs and Mary Cheney’s sexual preference notwithstanding. That an Army Reserve unit risked court-martial by declining the opportunity to be blown away is remarkable enough; where the decliners hail from puts it in the staggering category. Namely, Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, Kentucky and South Carolina. For the military, that’s like the College of Cardinals telling the Pope to do what Dick Cheney advised Pat Leahy.

For Vietnam hands, the episode brought back Peter Arnett’s “Sir, my men refuse to fight” story—a lieutenant’s report to his commander about why a useless, enemy-infested hill wasn’t being taken. Few had heard of such a thing until then, but it became a commonplace afterward. Frequent as well was what befell gung-ho types who ordered venturing into harm’s way once too often: They got “fragged,” after “fragment,” which is what a grenade does after it’s tossed into an officer’s tent. That hasn’t happened in Iraq—yet. But, according to stories making their way out of blogs and into the MSM, all the needed ingredients are there: bitter troops yanked from home, long tours, rotten equipment, invisible enemy, combat without end or point. John Kerry appears to have picked up on it: Departing from the domestic script, he was bashing the commander in chief about each and every one of these items this week.

As for the percentage of Americans who continue to believe the war a swell idea, that number is worth citing, since—unlike here-today, gone-tomorrow, back-again-the-next day political popularity—movement is pretty much one direction: down. Presently, the figure stands at 47 percent—identical to what it was with Vietnam circa late ’67/early ’68. More to the point, 47 percent is also Mr. Bush’s overall approval rating, according to Zogby and Newsweek. Why’s that coincidence notable? No President since Ike has been returned to office heading into an election with an approval rating less than 50 percent. Such ratings didn’t exist when Harry Truman ran in 1948, but a certain polling organization’s final survey had him losing by five points—exactly the margin he won by. And what organization was it, do you suppose, that so legendarily blew it? Gallup—the same head-counters who today put John Kerry eight points back and have consistently been out of the polling norm, reporting some swings of 20 points.

How Gallup pulls this off is simple: It routinely samples more Republicans than Democrats. On purpose. (So do the Newsweek, Time and CBS News/New YorkTimes polls.) The firm offers a highfalutin statistical explanation, but critics find possible other reasons in the original Mr. Gallup’s portraying opinion-surveying as doing the Lord’s work—just the way Dubya explains Iraq. Whatever the Almighty’s involvement, Gallup’s been often wrong—including about Al Gore at this time in the 2000 election, when it had him behind by 13 points. (As you may recall, Al went on to win the popular vote by 500,000 plus.)

A record like that, you’d think, would spell unemployment. But like McDonald’s, Gallup’s the name brand, so people keep going to it, even though, like McDonald’s, they know it’s bad for them. CNN and USA Today are the two big consumers of Gallup’s offerings, which are trumpeted by the likes of Fox News—so long as they’re bad for Mr. Kerry. As Mickey Kaus notes, in a contest as close as this, such polling hazards a bandwagon effect, with voters hopping aboard the advertised winner, if only to avoid a repeat of the Florida mess.

Kerry partisans say not to fret: There are untold cell-phoned kids who don’t get sampled (along with land-lined adults who hang up on Gallup at the dinner hour—as your correspondent possibly cost Mr. Kerry the Presidency by doing twice), and they’ll pull the Democratic lever on Election Day. But that’s one of those Don Rumsfeld known unknowables. What’s Jack Nicholson crystal is that events can stand poll results on their head.

Example No. 1: If our boys come up with beheader-in-chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi between now and Nov. 2 (as they’re presently strenuously attempting by reducing Falluja, block by block), it will not—to put it mildly—enhance Mr. Kerry’s chances. Particularly since Zarqawi has just pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden—providing the administration with yet another rationalization for the war (the 26th, by the Kerry campaign’s count).

Example No. 2: Though the Citigroup Center and the New York Stock Exchange still stand, despite Tom Ridge’s warnings two days after the Democratic National Convention, the Homeland Security chief’s saying the sky is falling packs an opinion-altering wallop—an average of 2.75 points added to Mr. Bush’s approval ratings, according to a Cornell University study cited by The Nation last week. Should Mr. Empty Suit decide that red’s his favorite color a few days before ballot-casting, it could be the balance-tipper.

Example No. 3: The Washington Post poll’s glad tidings for Mr. Kerry in battleground states do not factor in the impact of the Sinclair Broadcast Group’s Stolen Honor “news” documentary, which has yet to air. It will, close to the election, since Colin Powell’s boy, F.C.C. chairman Michael, has refused to block it. No surprise: Powell fils (whose résumé lists him as a former advisor to Dick Cheney) favors Sinclair being free to acquire even more stations than its current 62. Whether Mr. Kerry survives their prime-time disgorging of Carlton Sherwood’s 45 minutes remains to be seen. Mr. Sherwood, who was boasting this week of having been sued for libel 23 times without a loss, better hope that he does: His admitted 30-year loathing of John Kerry—the Times v. Sullivan “actual malice” standard in spades—could break the string at 24.

The candidate himself has been bearing up well, considering what else has been going on, which ranges from the ridiculous (the press hoo-hah over his supposed debate “outing” of the Vice President’s long open and proud daughter); to the inexplicable (230,000-jobs-lost Ohio still colored white); to the bizarre (Mr. Kerry adding watching frisky-fantasies-about-showering Bill O’Reilly to NASCAR and Razorback football as favorite pastimes); to the possibly clinical—if Internet-reported diagnoses of his opponent’s condition are believable (which they assuredly aren’t).

Observing “the drooping left side of the President’s face, his mouth and nasolabial fold” during the last debate, Dallas anesthesiologist W. Kendall Tongier saw a possible recent “transient ischemic attack” (stroke). Either that, or—less alarming, but more embarrassing—”overzealous Botox injection.” A second, unnamed doc with a couple of Ph.D.’s to go with his M.D. fingered “Bell’s Palsy” as the culprit; while a third, Dr. Joseph M. Price of Carsonville, Mich., settled on “pre-senile dementia” after reading James Fallows’ July-August Atlantic article, comparing Dubya’s silkiness debating Ann Richards in 1994 to his halting, malapropism-ridden search for words since becoming President. Still another opinion—heart problems — issued from a poster of unknown c.v., who solved the riddle of Dubya’s mysterious “back bulge” in the bargain by including a photo of a strap-on portable defibrillator. Last in this rundown (but by no means in the Web post-mortem, which has assumed Zapruder-film proportions): New Republic senior editor Ryan Lizza spotting spittle decorating the right corner of the President’s mouth during Debate No. 3. His judgment: Dubya flummoxed.

They’re all wrong, and every member of “the reality-based community” with them, according to a senior Bush advisor quoted by Ron Suskind this weekend in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Said he: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

See why Kafka’s so handy?

Franz would also appreciate how Powell père ’s State Department has been contributing to the war effort with its announcement that part of a $10 million grant to prepare Iraqi women for participation in democratic life would be going to the “Independent Women’s Forum.”

How independent are these gals? A look at their founders’ list offers a clue. Among the grandees are: Second Lady Lynne Cheney (the real conservative in the family); Midge Decter, mate of neocon founding father Norman Podhoretz and no slouch herself; Kate O’Beirne, the National Review columnist who thinks so highly of Carlton Sherwood’s cinematic talents; and Wendy Lee Gramm, wife of former Texas Senator and Republican Presidential candidate Phil, and head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission under Ronald Reagan and Bush 41, in which capacity she freed Enron and other oil and gas companies of burdensome regulations, before joining Enron’s board.

According to the I.W.F. Web site, the ladies are dedicated to combating “the women-as-victim, pro-big-government ideology of radical feminism.” In practice, that’s translated as: lobbying against the Violence Against Women Act. Opposing the distribution to schools of materials to combat sex discrimination. Heading up forces against Title IX, which mandates gender equality in education, including collegiate sports.

The newest string in the I.W.F.’s harpsichord is joining David Horowitz’s “Students for Academic Freedom,” to cleanse institutions of higher learning of perceived spreaders of anti-Americanism. This is accomplished by various means, including placing ads in college newspapers instructing boys and girls how to rat out their professors. At Dave Letterman’s alma mater, Ball State, “WANTED” posters have appeared, with a headshot of history prof Abel Alves. (His seditions: putting Fast Food Nation on the freshman reading list and inviting members of the Humane Society to guest-lecture.) At the University of Arizona in Tempe (site of last Friday’s Presidential debate), a student in associate professor David Gibbs’ “What Is Politics?” class has reported him to the F.B.I. as “an anti-American communist who hates America and is trying to brainwash young people into thinking America sucks.”

Unalloyed joy—all those fresh-faced youngsters registering in record numbers? Ummm, maybe not, Mr. Kerry.

In preparing to receive “God’s gift,” as the President described freedom the other night, Iraqi women might want to take a look at how the gift’s handled in Ohio, Wisconsin, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon and Florida, where election-outcome-rigging is proceeding full-steam. More of the same’s in the offing when votes are cast, which has already gotten underway in a number of states, including First Brother Jeb’s, which experienced its first “touch-screen” glitch as soon as the machines were plugged in.

It’ll all end up in the courts, just like four years ago. In anticipation, a suggestion to a friend of better days:

John, remember how well the all–Ivy League glee club did for Al Gore in the temples of Justice? This time, have the Brooklyn Bar Association send over their three best guys named Vinnie. Then have them take their shirts off and turn around. The one with the most hair on his back? Hire him.