||Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.
Ignore the point spread
Forget the point spread. Look at point totals in the major polls.
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Third and final presidential debate: Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona. 9 p.m. ET
CNN's special coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- If anyone tells you that the latest authoritative national poll shows President George W. Bush either running 4 percentage points ahead of or 2 points behind Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, pay him no attention. Ignore the messenger completely.
That is the advice of respected analyst and Democratic pollster Guy Molyneux, who argues that the point-spread between any incumbent president and his challenger is meaningless. What does matter in pre-election polls, he insists, is the percentage of the vote the incumbent president is receiving.
With refreshing directness, Molyneux told me in an interview that we in the political press have it backward whenever we report that the president's lead over Kerry is either expanding or disappearing. He invoked, what he termed in a piece he wrote for American Prospect Online, "the incumbent 50-percent rule."
History shows that the percentage of the vote that an incumbent president gets in the major polls before Election Day is an accurate predictor of the percentage of the vote the incumbent will win on Election Day. Thus, in Molyneux's judgment, the "incumbent who fails to poll above 50 percent is in grave danger of losing his job."
In the four most recent elections where an incumbent president sought re-election -- Bill Clinton in 1996, George H.W. Bush in 1992, Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Jimmy Carter in 1980 -- in the three major polls of the broadcast networks and their newspaper partners, the incumbent won the same percentage of the actual vote (or less) as he had received in the polls in three elections. Only Ronald Reagan, who had polled 58 percent of the vote and then actually won 59 percent of the vote, exceeded the average of the three network surveys.
The numbers of the challengers -- a list that includes third party candidate Ross Perot twice -- run better on Election Day than they do in the pre-election measures of public opinion. The average increase on Election Day in the actual vote for a challenger to a president is 4 percentage points.
To avoid making the 2004 election a referendum on Bush's stewardship at a time when a significant majority of voters have said they believe the direction of the country is seriously "off on the wrong track," the president's campaign has been devoted almost exclusively to focusing the electorate's attention on the alleged defects, moral and political, of Sen. Kerry.
Here is the president's case: "Things have never been worse in the United States, and I'm the only guy who can get us out of the mess we're in."
But eventually, as Carter in 1980 and the first Bush in 1992 discovered to their regret, when an incumbent president seeks re-election, the voters make that election a referendum on the incumbent's record and first decide whether the incumbent deserves a second term.
History tells us that undecided voters break overwhelmingly on Election Day in favor of the presidential challenger -- unless the incumbent president's campaign has been able through negative attacks to "disqualify" the challenger.
One analyst has concluded that since 1976, 86 percent of undecided voters have voted for the challenger candidates.
Molyneux believes that "voters think that President Bush is so preoccupied with the war on terrorism and bringing democracy to the Middle East that his re-election will mean four more years of very little or no attention to their problems of jobs and health-care."
What do voters want in their president? According to Molyneux, "They want a president who can walk and chew gum at the same time," both here at home and overseas.
So forget the point spread. Look instead at the incumbent candidate's point total in the major polls. Unless the polls begin to give the incumbent more than 50 percent of the vote, then the result on November 2 could well be the second one-term Bush presidency in a dozen years.
Mark Shields: Forget the point spread. Look instead at the incumbent candidate's point total in the major polls.