Columns » Warwick Sabin

Kerry’s Arkansas gamble

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With only days remaining before the Nov. 2 election, it is safe to say that Arkansas never became the battleground state that some of us thought it should be. On Oct. 24, the Arkansas News Bureau released the results of its latest statewide poll, which had Bush and Kerry tied at 48 percent each. That same day, a front-page story in the New York Times, headlined “Bush and Kerry focus campaigns on 11 key states,” included this paragraph: “And Mr. Bush’s aides argued that Mr. Kerry had squandered millions of dollars in states where they had always said he had little chance of winning, such as Louisiana, Arkansas, West Virginia and North Carolina.” That argument seemed especially odd in light of the polling news that morning. Did the Bush campaign have more reliable internal polling data? Did they know something the rest of us don’t? To help answer these questions, I called Adam Nagourney, the New York Times reporter who co-wrote the article I read. “I think that Democrats for a while have felt that they did have a good shot in Arkansas,” Nagourney said from the campaign trail. “They still think there is an outside chance there.” He said that he had heard about the poll numbers in Arkansas, but that his sources inside both campaigns said that their data did not indicate the same degree of movement. “But that could change,” Nagourney continued. “From reporting and talking to the campaigns, Arkansas is not at the top of their list. But it might come into play. I bet Clinton will come there, and he could make a difference.” With only a week remaining? “In such a tight race, you could see them go in to Arkansas if they think it is close there,” he answered. “They just went into Michigan at the last minute. The Democrats didn’t think that Michigan was going to be a problem.” Mitchell Lowe, who oversees the Bush/Cheney campaign in Arkansas, said that even though our state is not experiencing the frenzied attention directed toward the so-called swing states, we remain a targeted state in the eyes of national strategists. “Both campaigns have narrowed the field somewhat in terms of the states where they think they can compete,” Lowe said. “We are continuing to put resources into Arkansas. We still have an ample staff. But relative to other states that are more competitive, not as much.” Lowe’s counterpart at the Kerry/Edwards campaign, Rodney Shelton, offers a similar perspective, citing the fact that their offices in Louisiana, Virginia and Arizona have been shut down, while the Arkansas operation continues to field a large staff. But another comment he made is more revealing about how top Kerry aides think about Arkansas. “I honestly believe there are a lot of people among the upper level folks who group all the Southern states together,” Shelton said. “To them, the South is the South.” That seems to be the most plausible explanation for why the Kerry campaign would not make an all-out effort to capture a state that is undoubtedly up for grabs. I’m no polling expert, but a look at all 24 public polls conducted in Arkansas since March shows that the average Bush lead is three points. It is possible that the Kerry strategists want to devote their energies to states that have more than the six electoral votes that Arkansas has to offer, except that does not explain their focus on New Mexico, which only has five of them. Maybe they have plotted a course to victory that does not require our electoral votes, but that is a daring angle. Just ask Al Gore. You have to wonder if the Bush aides cited in the Nagourney article were trying to convince the Kerry campaign not to compete in Arkansas. Why not let their opponent “squander” his money, instead of calling attention to it? Perhaps they knew that by lumping Arkansas in with other Southern states where Kerry genuinely has no chance to win, they would exploit his senior strategists’ misunderstanding of our state and region. At the very least, a strong investment in Arkansas would have put the Bush campaign on the defensive, forcing them to spend time and money here. Shelton says that he has been pushing for a greater effort in Arkansas all along. The latest poll seems to have attracted the attention of the decision-makers, and Shelton promises “big surprises” before Election Day. “I would rather have the push now than have had it a few weeks ago,” Shelton said. Hopefully the extra attention will not have come too late. As close as the race is likely to be in Arkansas, we will never know if a sustained high-level campaign would have made a crucial difference here.

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