President Bush’s campaign transfers some of its campaign staff out of Arkansas and the conventional wisdom becomes that the president has the state locked up.
John Kerry decides not to run television commercials he had intended to run in Arkansas and the conventional wisdom becomes that he has given up on the state.
A couple of days later the Zogby International poll shows the presidential race in Arkansas a dead heat and the state Democratic Party goes to court to get Ralph Nader stricken from the ballot, presumably to aid Kerry’s supposedly conceded chances.
It would be fair to ask what in the world is going on.
First, and for some reason, Zogby tends to show Kerry a little stronger in Arkansas than is the case in most other polls. Bush leads from three to five points in the others. The prevailing label for Arkansas has moved from "battleground" to "lean Bush."
That doesn’t mean it’s out of the question that Kerry could compete here. We have remnants of a Democratic culture that has seated a congressional delegation of five Democrats and a lone Republican. The Democratic Party continues to sponsor a more extensive statewide coordinated campaign than the Republicans, with 12 field offices around the state, and there’s powerful anti-Bush, if not pro-Kerry, sentiment. A chance remains that Bill Clinton could arise from convalescence and make a last minute foray into Democratic strongholds, though it’s hard to imagine him displaying that usual vigor by the end of October. Just his showing up might be an inspirational and mobilizing factor.
But in the national chess match that is a presidential race, each state matters only in the context of all others.
It comes down to this: Bush de-emphasizes Arkansas because he can; Kerry de-emphasizes it because he must.
Kerry is running such a foundering national campaign that he finds himself boxed in. He must emphasize the dwindling number of states where he has his best chance to fashion an electoral majority. He begins with New York and California and a few of those reliably liberal New England states, such as
Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Rhode Island. He looks good in Illinois and Washington and Hawaii. After that, his only hope to get to 270 electoral votes lies in Florida and Ohio and Michigan and Minnesota and Pennsylvania. He leads precariously in three and trails within range in two.
That’s where he must go.
Yes, our six little electoral votes could help, but not if they’re an outside shot and if winning them would deplete resources Kerry could use in Florida and Ohio and Michigan and Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
So, Arkansas is out of play at the moment, except for that Democratic coordinated campaign that is funded not by the Kerry campaign, but the Democratic National Committee. Its greatest challenge surely will be keeping workers motivated without the candidate or television time and amid rampant media reports that their guy has conceded the state.
That hasn’t been a problem, Michael Cook, who runs that coordinated campaign, told me Sunday. He said he’d been worried about it. But people are still showing up to man phone banks. They’re saying they’ll have to win it themselves without TV.
All this could change. After the debate Thursday night, Kerry might see a need to re-engage in Arkansas.
But to be honest, Kerry’s chances have always been less than promising here.
An 11th-hour mailing into South Arkansas from the National Rifle Association exploiting his "F" grade on the gun lobby’s desire to arm all Americans with AK-47s would likely render wasted all the efforts he’d made before.
In Arkansas it’s mostly about those three "G’s," meaning God, guns and gays.
More to the point, it’s about professing to love one’s idea of God while clinging to a weapon of limited destruction, partly for recreation and partly from fear, and condemning at best and hating at worst those whose sexual orientation is different.