But new negative information coming to voters about Bush during the 2004 campaign was less likely to hurt him than negative data about the challenger. As Kerry's pollster Mark Mellman explained, "When an incumbent faces a challenger there is a fundamental asymmetry in information. Voters knew very little about John Kerry so each new fact, each new impression constituted a very large proportion of their total storehouse of knowledge about Kerry. That [made] attitudes toward him quite malleable. By contrast each new fact about or impression of George Bush constituted an in?nitesimally small percentage of their knowledge about the President, making attitudes toward him harder to shape."
Sometimes in focus groups during the campaign, Mellman remembers, voters would have no idea Kerry had fought in Vietnam, but they would bring up Botox treatments and Kerry's "rich" wife.
Mellman's polling data demonstrated the impact the Swift Boat Veterans had on his candidate's public image. Just after the Democratic convention, voters who thought Kerry would keep America strong militarily outnumbered by 19 percentage points voters who said he would not. After Labor Day the margin was 3 percentage points. Over the same time period, Kerry saw comparable declines on "strong leader" (from 18 to 1) and "trust John Kerry to be commander in chief" (16 down to 3).
Because of the Swift Boat attacks, Kerry had to shy away from discussing Vietnam, which the campaign had planned to use as its entrée into presenting Kerry as a regular guy (through his crewmate relationships), illustrating his mettle, displaying his ideas for national security, and positioning him as a wartime president. Within Kerry's campaign, there was a roiling debate about when and how to take the issue on, but there was always more talk than action.
The Bush campaign and the Republican Party simply were better organized than the Democrats. Their research ?les on Kerry (and on Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt, and John Edwards) were signi?cantly more thorough than the Democrats' ?les on Bush -- and on themselves. Republicans had thick and frequently updated research books, clip ?les, video archives, and real-time tracking of new data, as well as a full appreciation of the value of such tools. With the speed of a cable modem and the ease of ?nger painting, Bush's supporters regularly circulated to New Media allies tidbits about Kerry's actions and statements.
Kerry, meanwhile, often seemed uncertain about the facts of his own life. And his staff was unwilling and unable to get its reticent and private candidate to cough up enough details to mount a serviceable defense. Some of the anti-Kerry stories were patently false, some were patently true, some hovered in between. But over time, the accumulation of negative imagery was left largely unchallenged. And the merits of Kerry as a man, as a senator, and as a possible president were lost in the shuf?e.
It should be noted that just because Republicans used the Freak Show's vast powers of simpli?cation and ampli?cation to disseminate these attacks does not mean they did not reveal some information to voters about what kind of president John Kerry might be. But the Freak Show is decidedly indifferent to the truth of such charges and elevates the personal and the negative over an impartial appraisal of an allegation's relevance in determining a person's quali?cations for the of?ce.