The Truth, Mainly - 10/11/2004

Negative enthusiasm Kerry's best bet?
by Leon Satterfield

I was reading a story in the Washington Post a week or so ago and I had this epiphany. I don't have epiphanies as often as I used to, so I want to talk about this one.

The story was about the results of a Post-ABC poll. Here's what it said:

"Nearly two in three likely voters who support President Bush—65 percent—said they were very enthusiastic about their candidate while 42 percent of Sen. Kerry's supporters express similarly high levels of enthusiasm for their choice…."

That's when my epiphany kicked in.

It's true, I think, that most likely Kerry voters are far more restrained in their enthusiasm for their candidate. And most likely Bush voters are far more wildly enthusiastic—almost religiously so—about the president. That 65-42 difference in party enthusiasm strikes me as about right.

But here's my epiphany: in any election, there are two kinds of enthusiasm—positive and negative. Positive enthusiasm is when you really, really like your candidate. Negative enthusiasm is when you really, really don't like your candidate's opponent.

And I"ll make you a bet: I"ll bet that as many, if not more, elections are decided by negative enthusiasm as are decided by positive enthusiasm. Voters who really, really can't stand a candidate are at least as likely to vote as voters who really, really like a candidate.

So taking a poll that determines positive enthusiasm but not negative enthusiasm makes for poor prognostication.

Because if I can barely tolerate one candidate but cannot think about the other one without wanting to barf, I'm certain to vote for the barely tolerable guy—at least as certain as the positively enthusiastic are to vote for the other guy.

But that's not going to show up in the Post's poll results because the Post doesn't measure the Barf Factor.

Some Democrats used to call themselves "yellow-dog Democrats" to signify that they'd vote for a yellow dog if it was running against a Republican. And it does seem to me that Kerry is going to get a lot of yellow-dog Democrat votes.

Not that they like Kerry more, but that they like Bush less.

You know something's brewing when Nebraska Republicans start grumbling about our Republican president. Sen. Chuck Hagel said last month that "The Republican Party has come loose of its moorings…we're in deep trouble" because of "all these smart guys who got us in there [Iraq]…all the smart guys who said how easy this was going to be and who reassured us not to worry." And former Representative Doug Bereuter called the war a "mistake. The cost in casualties and long-term financial costs are incredible."

And consider these recent examples of even more negative enthusiasm:

—John Shelby Spong, a retired Episcopal Bishop, writes that 'My feelings about the Bush Administration have reached a visceral negativity, the intensity of which surprises even me. So I decided to search introspectively to identify its source….I did not react this way to other Republican presidents….My feelings are quite specifically Bush related." Then he goes on to talk about, among other things, the president's attack on the patriotism of John McCain in 2000, of Max Cleland in 2002, and of John Kerry this year. "For a candidate who ducked military service by securing a preferential appointment to the Texas National Guard…this takes gall indeed."

—Steve Brozak, Iraqi war vet, a former Marine running for Congress, says this of the Bush administration: "They lied to us.There were no weapons of mass destruction. There was no planning, just this sense of arrogance and contempt by the civilians in this administration."

—E.L. Doctorow, novelist, writes in the East Hampton (NY) Star that "this president does not know what death is. He hasn't the mind for it. You see him joking with the press, peering under the table for the weapons of mass destruction he can't seem to find….He does not mourn. He doesn't understand why he should mourn….To mourn is to express regret and he regrets nothing….He had not the mind to perceive the costs of war, or to listen to those who knew those costs. He did not understand that you do not go to war when it is one of the options but when it is the only option; you go not because you want to but because you have to."

—And the Lone Star Iconoclast, the newspaper published in the president's home town (and which endorsed Bush in 2000), lays out a four-page charge against the president which ends with this: "The Iconoclast wholeheartedly endorses John Kerry."

The piece devotes 33 paragraphs to Bush's defects, and only seven paragraphs to Kerry's merits. And it ends with a Kerry endorsement. Now that's negative enthusiasm.

And it's what will—if anything will—win the presidency for John Kerry.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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