There's a lot of hand-wringing from Democrats and a lot of satisfaction from Republicans over the two new polls out this morning showing a small, but measurable lead for the president over John Kerry.
(CNN/USAToday Bush 50%, Kerry 44%, Nader 4%. WaPo/ABCNews Bush 48%, Kerry 43%, Nader 6%.)
The first thing that is worth noting is that if you look at the tally on the Polling Report website, there have been eight other polls conducted entirely or in part during the month of April. And only one of those showed a lead for the president. The most recent of those other polls, the Zogby poll conducted roughly simultaneously with the WaPo and CNN polls, has Kerry up by three points over Bush and tied when Nader is put into the mix.
What I take from this is not that the two most recent polls are outliers and should be discounted, but that we've just gone roughly a month when every poll agreed that Kerry was ahead. Before that, over the first four months of this year, they've oscillated back and forth a couple times. I think this is the just the nature of this race. And something folks on both sides are going to have to get used to.
From what I can glean from reader emails these new numbers have really knocked the wind out of a lot of Democrats because it's very hard for them to see how the president could have possibly gained traction over two or three weeks when the news for his White House has been universally and profoundly bad -- principally because of the uptick in fighting in Iraq, but also because of the 9/11 business.
If I could capture the mood in a sentence, it is, "If this doesn't sink the guy, nothing will."
I must say that it surprises me too. But, as I said, this is a close race that has bounced back and forth a couple times -- and often for reasons which are not as clearly tied to the current news cycle as we're inclined to think. In short, don't change your view of the race based on the president popping up a few points into the lead.
Another opinion is that of Charlie Cook, in the "Off to the Races" analysis out this morning, who points to the president's ad campaign.
Cook gives a rather downcast view of the state of the Kerry campaign and suggests that the massive Bush ad campaign against Kerry is finally bearing fruit. Nevertheless, measures of public opinion on Iraq keep heading south, as does the all-important 'is the country headed in the right direction/wrong direction' question. He concludes by saying that "Kerry's rising negative ratings and an increase in Bush's own problems create a wash -- a race that remains a dead heat in this evenly divided country."
A contrary reading of these polls might suggest that the president gains as national security and war issues become more salient, even if they are becoming more salient because of what seem to be objectively bad news about his policies. But I suspect Cook's read is closer to the mark.