Expectations Great and Small

With just four days until Swifty the donkey makes his Boston debut, the convention-related expectations stakes is well underway. The game involves pundits and partisans — through and along with the press — speculating about, in this case, what Kerry’s prospects will/should look like post-convention and what he will/should do to enhance his prospects, then judging the candidate later on by the standard they’ve set. (You may remember a similar game played during the Democratic primaries and, more recently, the veepstakes — what kind of “bounce” in the polls Kerry would or would not get from running mate X or Y).

The Bush camp planted a stake in the ground on July 4, when Bush-Cheney campaign strategist Matthew Dowd released a memo (widely reported on in the days thereafter) asserting that “Kerry should have a lead of more than 15 points coming out of the convention.” Writing for The Hill on July 14, former Kerry staffer Mark Mellman tried to lower expectations. What Dowd was really saying, Mellman wrote, is that “Kerry ‘should’ be ahead by 15 points,” even though Dowd doesn’t really believe Kerry will have such a lead. Mellman, naturally, implies that any bounce at all is a good sign: “There are not a lot of voters left for Kerry to get, to give the ticket a bounce. That’s a sign of real strength.”

On July 19, Kerry campaign chairwoman Jeanne Shaheen appeared on CNN’s “Inside Politics” and assured Judy Woodruff that the Kerry camp doesn’t “expect to come out of the convention with a big bounce, as has happened sometimes.” The reason? “Anywhere from 82 to 89 percent of Democrats say they support [Kerry-Edwards]. There isn’t the room to grow that we’ve seen in some past years.”

Picking up on the “no bounce” theme, The Christian Science Monitor’s Liz Marlantes informed readers on Tuesday that “the Democratic convention may defy history and not give Kerry a bounce — a sign of how settled the electorate is.” A Kerry bounce (or lack thereof) will, Marlantes wrote, “shape perceptions of the race, and, since Kerry’s convention comes first, the effects for him might be magnified.” While a swing Kerry’s way “would be interpreted as a significant shift … no bounce could be interpreted as a sign of fundamental weakness in Kerry’s candidacy.”

And yesterday, CNN’s Carlos Watson penned a column titled “What Kerry Needs in Boston.” Among the “four things” that Watson contends Kerry “need[s] to achieve with this convention to continue to improve his fall chances,” is “to leave [it] with at least an eight-to-10 point lead in most national polls.”

Campaign Desk eagerly awaits the press’s verdict on whether Kerry has successfully negotiated past the Skylla and Charybdis the political media have set up for him.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.