Before Thursday’s debates he was trailing President George W Bush by 51% to 46% among likely voters in the latest national opinion poll.
But the majority of the American people do not necessarily elect the winner. If they did, Al Gore would be president today. The winner is decided by the electoral votes of the various states, and that race is much closer.
Bush is distinctly ahead in the polls in 23 states and marginally ahead in seven others where the vote is within the margin of error. On the other hand, Kerry is leading clearly in eight states, including California and New York, and he marginally ahead in nine other states. He is apparently ahead in four of the six largest states, while Bush seems to be leading in the other two - Texas and Florida.
If those polls were replicated in the actual election, Bush would win, but the whole thing could come down to Florida again.
Bush was ahead by 49% to 46% in Florida in the latest poll conducted last week by CNN, USA Today and Gallup, whereas Kerry was ahead by 46% to 45% in a poll conducted by the American Research Group a couple of days earlier. Thus Florida remains a toss-up.
Both men avoided personal attacks in this week’s debate in Miami, and each was complimentary to the other’s family.
Supporters of each probably think their man won, but Kerry’s supporters are likely to be the happier. The foreign policy issues on which the debate centred was possibly his weakest area. But he essentially held his own and thus stopped a rot in his support, which had been declining since August.
Pundits had been predicting that Kerry would make the mistake of confusing people by trying to explain too much, while Bush was expected to keep his message short and simple. Many independents are likely to see Kerry as the winner, simply because he did not lose.
Bush’s critics will be buoyed up by the realisation that there is so little between the candidates in the polls that Kerry can, in the coming debates, gain the necessary votes to win in the Electoral College at any rate. Thus the contest is wide open.
Of course, history would seem to suggest that such debates hinge on cosmetic matters, rather than the substance of the actual discussions.
The first televised presidential debate was between Vice-President Richard Nixon and Senator John F Kennedy in 1960. It is widely cited as having made the vital difference in the outcome of the election.
Nixon, a skilled debater, was the favourite to win the election.
On debating points he was widely adjudged to have won the first debate - yet the general perception among the viewing public was that he lost the contest. On the day of the debate there was a conference of Democratic governors in Arkansas, where the debate was not carried live on television. The governors listened to it on radio first. When polled privately afterwards, all but two thought that Nixon had won. But then, after watching the delayed broadcast on television, they were unanimous that Kennedy had triumphed.
Part of the reason that Kennedy won the TV debate was faulty lighting.
Just before the television programme began, press photographers were invited on stage to photograph the two candidates. One of the snappers bumped into a light focused on Nixon. The light was knocked askew and there was no time to fix it and, as a result, there were shadows on his face, giving him the appearance of a shifty character.
The Democrats ridiculed him mercilessly. “Would you buy a used car from him?” they asked for days afterwards. It was suggested that he had not bothered to shave properly, and Kennedy got in the act by denying that he had ever called him “a barefaced liar”. Having seen Nixon up close, he said he would never call him “barefaced”.
The election turned out to be one of the closest in American history, so the margin of victory could be attributed to any one of a number of factors. What happened with the light was probably an accident, but Nixon was the victim of some dirty tricks, staged by Dick Tuck, who plagued his political career.
Next day as Nixon arrived at a Chicago airport, for instance, a big black woman raced up to him and hugged him and suggested that he had been beaten the previous night but would win the next debate. He looked decidedly uneasy at the slobbering attentions of the woman. That was a stunt planned to embarrass him.
ON whistle-stop tours, Nixon would address small crowds from the back of the train at every stop. Local party candidates were introduced first and then Nixon would speak. But on one such occasion, just as the vice-president began to speak, someone blew a whistle and waved a flag - and the train took off.
Tuck was blamed but he denied any involvement, even though he said he would have been proud to claim it. Nixon developed a paranoia that led to the Watergate fiasco. But on that day at the train station and on the night of the first televised debate, he was apparently a victim of Murphy’s Law.
In a recent RTÉ documentary tribute to Brian Farrell, the television debates between Charlie Haughey and Garret FitzGerald were depicted as just as cosmetic. Garret tended to confuse the audience with a mass of statistics, while Charlie kept his message simple. Yet Garret was credited with winning their last debate in 1987, because he seemed more focused.
He admitted in the documentary, however, that he basically got stage fright and was “thrown completely”. He kept asking Haughey the same question - to explain what he planned to do about the budgetary situation. This was not to emphasise any point, but simply because “I couldn’t think what else to say”, Garret admitted.
Instead of being more focused, the Fine Gael leader was uncharacteristically lost for words.
Later, when Haughey challenged him on a point, Garret managed to support his argument by producing a note card. Reading from the card while the camera focused on the writing had the visual impact of reinforcing his point, with the result that he was viewed as the winner of that debate.
But he still lost the election.
Ultimately, such debates may only make the difference in a very close election, yet a debate may turn on a obscure point.
In his debates with Ronald Reagan, for example, President Jimmy Carter made the mistake of saying that he asked his daughter Amy what was the biggest issue in the election. Maybe he was trying to depict himself as the caring father, but it sounded ludicrous to the audience when he cited her answer as the nuclear issue. It almost seemed as if he was citing his young daughter as his nuclear adviser.
In the last analysis, maybe it is the uncertainty of the enormous potential consequences of such a slip that makes such debates so intriguing.