August 26, 2004,
The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have certainly eclipsed most other political news for the past couple of weeks. They have overshadowed oil prices hitting record highs, weakening retail-sales estimates, declining Dow Jones and NASDAQ averages, and the ongoing battle in Najaf. That isn't to say that the media aren't covering these news items; it is to say that there isn't ongoing political analysis of these issues and their impact on the presidential race.
The one story that all media are following is the controversy surrounding the swift-boat vets and their TV ads and book. This controversy has grown so large that Kerry felt compelled to respond directly to this group a move that is unprecedented and politically a major sign of weakness.
A couple of weeks ago, Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates released data from our monthly survey of voters in the battleground states showing that the swift-boat dust had caught voters' attention. We said that to the extent it impacted undecided voters, it cut against Kerry by nearly a 3-to-1 margin.
More recently, we released further data showing that the vets' charges questioning Kerry's medals pack a potentially devastating political punch, as they undermine a very crucial pillar of Kerry's political persona. This data certainly explains Kerry's desperate attempts to change the subject by focusing on the president.
I say hats off to the swift-boat group. It has managed to do what neither of the campaigns has been able to do thus far: capture the attention of the news media and voters for more than a couple of days. And more important, it is possible that they will have struck the most potent blow of this campaign.
The last time we saw this type of media frenzy and impact was back in 1988, over a now-infamous ad featuring one "Willie Horton." I rode that media rollercoaster ride as one of the architects of the independent-expenditure effort (this was back in the day before free speech, particularly political speech, was regulated more than meat processing). We spent a grand total of $500,000 in airtime and received tens of millions in free airplay from the non-stop media frenzy surrounding the ad. The media has thus far done the same for swift vets it's given an ad that may have had $500,000 worth of paid airtime millions in free airtime.
Of course, we don't know how this swift-boat saga will ultimately play out, but for now there is no question that it has been a huge boon to the president's reelection campaign. Every day that it takes Kerry off his message benefits President Bush. Every day that it limits the media's analysis of the political impact of events in the economy or the war in Iraq benefits the president.
And let us not forget that as the GOP convention approaches, the media is distracted from their standard stories about the party's divisions over abortion and now, gay marriage. Having lived through the platform process in 1996, we could have only wished for this type of controversy to distract the media from the platform fights over abortion then. This year there is the "Unity Plank" backed by pro-choice GOP groups and the Log Cabin Republicans ho-hum to a media now interested in the Vietnam War.
The Bush team has to be pleased the media is distracted. Let's face it: They would much rather have the president answering questions about 527s an issue few voters know (or care) about than how much more home heating oil will cost this winter or how the war in Iraq is going.
There is no question that Kerry is on the defensive. More important, for the first time in months, the president's campaign is not the one getting battered news cycle after news cycle. That respite alone is worth something.
Unfortunately, if at the end of all this swift-boat controversy the ballot numbers between President Bush and Sen. Kerry don't move, some pundits will claim that it was much ado about nothing. How wrong those pundits will be.
Any objective political analyst will recognize that for at least three weeks in August this heretofore unknown group of political neophyte veterans dominated the political debate, preventing either campaign from doing so and distracting the media beast. And depending on your perspective that was either a blessing or a curse.
As of right now, there can be no question that it has been a blessing for the Bush campaign.
Tony Fabrizio served as chief pollster in Sen. Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. His firm has worked for many U.S. senators, congressmen, and statewide office holders. It also works domestically and internationally for Fortune 500 companies.