Chief Bush Strategist Matthew Dowd

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report with Brit Hume," August 3, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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BRIT HUME, HOST: One thing that emerged clearly from last week's convention is that Democrats think this race is basically now theirs to lose and that their candidate did not need to hit any home runs to take another step toward the White House. The public, Democrats say, has made it clear it's ready to make a change. And all their man had to do, or has to do, is to prove himself an acceptable alternative to George W. Bush (search) and he will win. No big convention bounce needed, nor expected. That's the Democrats' theory of the race.

What's the Republican theory? For answers we turn to chief Bush strategist Matthew Dowd (search), who joins us from Bush headquarters just across the river in Virginia.

Matt Dowd, thanks for coming in. Good to have you.


HUME: Let me ask you about what you just heard me say about the Democrats and also about some of the numbers — the poll numbers that they cite in support of their view of things. They cite, in particular, "Time" magazine survey, which is really not out of sync with other opinion polls on the question of what they call call the "re- elect number."

And that the question was posed Bush deserves to be re-elected? Yes, 43.7 percent. Time for someone else, 53 percent. They also cite prominently a set of numbers from different polls on whether the country is headed in the right track or the wrong track. And as you can see from the "Time" magazine version of this and other numbers are roughly the same. You have a majority, not a huge majority, but a clear majority saying wrong track.

Why should we not look at those two numbers? A president, whom the public well knows, fewer than 45 percent saying, in this poll anyway, that he deserves re-election. Why would that not appear to be a very alarming sign, indeed, for an incumbent president?

DOWD: Well, Brit, I feel kind of sorry for the Democrats in this because they're grasping for whatever they can. They're not pointing to the head-to-head numbers. It's a little bit like the guy who lost a football game by seven points, that says they gained more yards than the other team, but they ended up losing by seven points.

They are in a very unique spot in order for a challenger to win. Every challenger that didn't get a bounce has lost and every challenger that wasn't substantially ahead after their convention has lost. Reagan was ahead of Carter by 16 points in 1980 and won. Clinton was ahead of Bush by 22 points and won and Carter was ahead of Ford by 31 points. They're either tied, slightly ahead are or slightly behind. And that is a very difficult — no challenger has ever come from this position and won.

On the re-elect question, I know it's a question people keep talking about. Bill Clinton (search) had a re-elect in the 40s and in some cases in the 30s in 1996 when he beat Bob Dole by nine points. That's not the question that's important. Every candidate has...

HUME: Wait a minute. Stop. Let me stop you for a second there, because I don't remember well enough to be clear. At what stage was he when he had that low re-elect number? All the way up to the end even?

DOWD: All the way to Election Day (search). He never had a re-election in the 50s and through that whole entire race. And in this same month, he had a re-elect at 38 percent in 1996 — July of 1996.

HUME: In other words, people might not have felt he deserved it, but they voted for him anyway.

DOWD: I mean the re-elect is no longer a good indicator. Most incumbents in 2002 won their campaigns with re-elects in the 40s. It's no longer a good indicator.

HUME: Let's go back to right track/wrong track. How do you assess that? That in the past — at least in the past some of the time has been a pretty good sense of where the public wants to go.

DOWD: Again, you look at the right track/wrong track numbers from previous presidential campaigns. Ronald Reagan's in 1984 had a right track/wrong track number in the high 40s. Bill Clinton had a right track number on Election Day of 39 percent and won the race.

I don't think those are the important attributes. You have to look at in the aftermath of the convention, where they have the stage to themselves, what is their numbers coming out? Every other candidate that went on to victory, their convention gave them a bounce and they took a significant lead. In this case they didn't.

HUME: Well, would you not agree? I think I heard you even say that the country is so divided and people are so intense in their emotions that you haven't had much movement in the polls really of the kind we used to see throughout this election season.

And that there are only a tiny handful, certainly fewer than 10 percent, undecided voters. And if that's all that's out there available to be gotten by one candidate or the other, that haven't made up their mind, that you can't really well get a very big bounce out of a group so small. Fair enough?

DOWD: No. I disagree with that partly. I do think that the race is fairly stable, but I do think there are enough people in the persuadable column that should move when one party dominates at over a week's period. If this is the best that the Democrats and John Kerry can do dominating the media and introducing them as a candidate, and they basically get to tied at best in most cases and behind in another, it's serious trouble for them.

We are now headed into a period where we're going to go through August and then we're going to have our convention. John Kerry will no longer own the stage to himself at any point. Normally candidates, the highest point they get for a challenger, is in the days following their convention. That is the high point. And even in a close environment — and I think this race will stay close, he should have taken some significant lead to show how high he can go. And even in this case with all that happened, he is basically tied.

HUME: One other thing. Just to complete the case they make. And that is late deciders have traditionally broken for the challenger. That you have a well-known incumbent, people haven't made up their mind to vote for him when it gets fairly late. And I suppose it's fair to argue it's fairly late now, tend to go for the challenger. Which would be bad news for the president at this stage. What's your take on that?

DOWD: Well, I think if in the end, after we have the debates and somebody is still undecided, I think an undecided voter is more in all likelihood not going to vote. I mean I think have you two bases in this country, two partisans that are very active and there's going to be a high turnout. In somebody that's undecided, even at this point, but even later on, is a person that's probably not going to vote. But you know, we'll see how it goes. And we'll see what happens after our convention.

HUME: And dare I ask you — last question. And I don't want you to tell me multiples of zero or anything like that. How much of a bounce do you expect the president might get? Quickly.

DOWD: I'm happy to do it, but have you to relate our bounce compared to their bounce.


DOWD: And normally — right. Incumbents get about two-thirds of their bounce, so I don't expect much of a bounce.

HUME: All right. Matt, thanks very much. Nice to have you.

DOWD: Thanks, Brit. Glad to be here.

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