Tuesday, May 09, 2006

the limits of failure

josh marshall makes a bet and posits a diminishing probability that bush's poll numbers will continue their tortured drift into hitherto uncharted depths of presidential ignominy:

mind you, i'm not saying that the president's popularity will continue to fall into the 20s. the continuing descent is something like a mathematical limit. each point lower digs deeper into the base of truly committed partisans and unquestioning hacks. so knocking off each new point on the way down requires ever greater displays of incompetence, failure and general infamy. and even for president bush that's a challenge.

i think josh misses the important role of genuine good news in supporting morale. it's not necessary for "ever greater displays of incompetence, failure and general infamy", as he puts it, to sustain the downward pressure on bush's approval rating. i would argue that the lack of good news all by itself is just as corrosive. even fervent supporters need regular helpings of good news in their diet; fans cannot live on the absence of disaster alone. people need tangible evidence that things are improving or moving forward; without that evidence, their patience eventually runs out, at which point they will abandon a losing or stagnating cause.

treading water is tiresome. so until bush can toss his dwindling supporters a real lifeline, a positive reason to keep paddling — something more than a slogan and a photo op — i predict that his numbers will continue to fall, especially when it doesn't get any better than this.

it's also worth mentioning another dynamic that i believe may be contributing to the erosion of bush's base: the effect of watching like-minded folk abandon the cause increases the pressure on the remaining faithful. there's nothing earth-shattering in that observation, but instead of taking it for granted, i want to elaborate a bit on how it appears to work. (disclaimer: i'm no polling professional so i have no studies or statistics to back my claims here, so yes, i'm pulling this hypothesis straight out of my ass!) the pressure to leave is greatest on those on the threshold exposed by the most recently departed.

dubya's followers are obviously not monolithic in many ways, including with regard to the intensity of their attachment to him. the least committed left first, and with each successive wave of defections, a new vulnerable front is exposed. dubya apparently has just lost the 32%ers, leaving the front in the hands of the 31%ers. unless reinforcements arrive, in the form of good news, the 31%ers will eventually join suit.

what i find fascinating about this dynamic is that i believe that the front is far more important to dubya's support than it first appears. i believe that the front serves as an insulator which allows those behind the front — in this case, those at 30% and below — to hold onto the dream. those on the front line are the heavy lifters, supporting the faith of everyone behind them. as long as the 31%ers hold fast, those below will feel safe and justified in their continued mule-headed commitment. as long as those in line ahead of them remain loyal, their loyalty will never budge, because, as any loyal keyboard commando knows, actually having to serve on the front line is no picnic, whether in iraq or in the polls.

so right now, it's up to the 31%ers. exactly what it will take to shake their faith, exactly when that moment will happen, or, most importantly, exactly how to identify and manipulate them, i have no idea, but ultimately it may take nothing but time. and so, like dominoes, they will fall.

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