Despite his low and shrinking standing in the polls, there are at least three1 scenarios in which GW Bush could still win his first Presidential election.
But first, the good news.
It's been obvious for some time that if the election is based on any of the traditional fundamentals, Bush is toast. The big question mark counterbalancing this fact was Bush's apparent financial advantage (not to mention the subsidies that always flow with incumbency), especially if it allowed him to define his opponent. The relative failure of the recent $50+ million Bush ad campaign — leaving the field open for Kerry to use the convention in the traditional way, as his introduction to the American people — suggests that Bush's (diminishing) financial advantage is primarily good for stemming the wounds, holding the base, not for making gains with the independent/undecided.
Importantly, a segment of the press (only part — the big cable networks remain solidly owned by zealots) and a much larger segment of the Establishment have decided that Bush is dangerous to the increasingly Argentinian economy, to the US's hard power (the army is hurting), and now to its soft power (whatever claim it had to moral standing in the community of nations). That is not an atmosphere that leads to the press Gore-ing Kerry, and Kerry's too disciplined and experienced to make a serious error likely.
Indeed, one thing that impresses me about Kerry is his political discipline and toughness. He stayed the course in Iowa, when the pundits and the futures market had written him off. He laid low this last six weeks, raising vast — impressively vast — amounts of money, when the chattering classes were out there pushing him to do or say silly things. He had the self-discipline to lay low, let events take their course, let Bush self-destruct, and not look like he was piling on. Most importantly, his campaign seems to have learned important lessons from the Gore campaign — and not just the dangers of letting your opponents define you: Kerry has been playing nice with reporters on his campaign plane, spending social time with them; this matters too much. Kerry's new plane has an airborne reporters' bar — this can only be good. Most importantly, the campaign is working for the long haul, and worried about peaking too soon, right after the convention. That was one of Gore's mistakes, one that people forget—in part because his decline was so visibly helped by the media echo chamber's repeat of lies and distortions such as “Al Gore said he invented the Internet”..
OK, now the bad news.
Here are three scenarios in which Bush pulls it out.
1. Terror. The most likely of the three. Consider this CNN article headlining this evening:
Several U.S. officials said Tuesday that unnamed terrorists, possibly al Qaeda operatives, are in the United States and planning a “major attack” on U.S. soil this summer. Details on how to deal with the threat are expected to be released in the weekly FBI bulletin on Wednesday.
I don't have any idea how terrorism plays; it depends so much on what and when. It might be that the nation sees it as another sign of Bush incompetence. It might be seen as cause to rally round the incumbent, in the false but common equation of patriotism and (especially Republican) incumbency. There doesn't seem to me to be that much Kerry can do to innoculate himself from this, except to push the 'Bush isn't up to the job' meme. And that's really a job for the Vice Presidential candidate. But given that the Bush administration is one of the greatest terrorist recruiting tools ever invented, there's every chance that there will be one or more attacks, both because there are now so many armed people who loath us, and because the smartest Islamic extremists will understand that their prospects are much better with a polarizing and incompetent Bush administration than with any other, and may act in the hopes of aiding his re-election.
2. Idiocy. I rate the chance of this as very low, but it needs mentioning since people keep writing about it: Kerry picks an awful veep, like McCain or Nader, and turns off 5-10% of his vote. [The McCain meme helps Kerry in one way, as it suggests that independent minded Republicans are anti-Bush, even though McCain says he supports his party's leader. The Nader meme is less helpful; it may win a few wavering votes, but the number of people who think he'd be safe as President is small. I'll suggest below, however, that the McCain meme is ultimately harmful.]
3. Brilliance. In an effort to jump-start his candidacy, Bush dumps Cheney — perhaps popular with the faithful, but a growing liability with everyone else — and replaces him with someone else, ideally someone charismatic, maybe young, female or minority.
The case for dumping Cheney for “health reasons” is strong: his staff seems implicated in both the Plame and the Chalabi scandals, and both are very serious national security disasters. The Chalabi mess is more serious, but the Palme story is easier to explain, and the investigation has a decent chance of resulting in indictments before the election. The likelihood of this is between the first two, but it's very dangerous. [Moral of the story: Democrats should lay off Cheney until after the Republican convention.]
In addition to whatever loyalty he may feel to his boss, there are three reasons why Bush might be reluctant to dump Cheney, listed in increasing likelihood and importance. First, Cheney might not go quietly (very unlikely). Second, although changing veeps in mid-stream was once a fairly common practice, it hasn't happened since FDR picked Truman; the more recent precedent of McGovern dumping Eagleton is not encouraging. The electorate might see it as exciting or it might read it as desperate.
The hardest problem, however, might be finding a suitable candidate who would add excitement to the ticket and pull in votes. The Cabinet is pretty unimpressive. As Iraq tanks, Dr. Rice is suddenly off the list. Gen. Powell has been visibly disloyal recently. As for governors, the one most likely to help the ticket isn't eligible due to his foreign birth.
Thus we get to the nightmare scenario: Recall that four years ago GW Bush ran as a “compassionate conservative” but governed as a Praetorian. Now the airwaves are thick with talk of how what the nation needs is a 'unity government' that 'crosses party lines' and 'unites'. So what if Bush were to decide again to steal his opponents' clothes…and pick a Democrat veep to demonstrate the ecumenicism of his policies?
He doesn't bring in any of the key battleground states, and he's not exactly charismatic, but Zell Miller is available.
 I toyed with adding a fourth scenario, “Buggout” in which the US hands “sovereignty” to the Iraqis on June 30. On July 1, they ask us to leave. On July 2, we start leaving. But I just can't see the Bush folks actually doing that.
Well, anyway, you hope like hell Rice is off the list…. A black female Republican VP, every Democrat’s nightmare.
If he replaces Cheney, Bush could go with success: the most recent republican vice presidential candidate to win the popular vote. And Dan Quayle is available.
Bush/Bush in 2004. “Third Time’s the Charm” or “I learned from the first gulf war even if my son didn’t” Maybe “Win One for the Gipper”
Zell Miller has offended most Democrats already. I don’t see how he helps Bush.
Of your three I would rate idiocy as unlikely and brilliance as unimaginable. I’d say if Bush is elected it will be because of one of two guys, Osama bin Laden or the guy who photoshopped the photo of Kerry with Fonda. If he (not bin Laden) is less careless next time and manages a very very convincing photo of Kerry with a sheep, then Bush has a chance. If with a pig, then I’d given Bush even odds.
I think you miss the real disaster scenario, attempted military coup. The Bush people have neither morals nor restraint. They are already trying to rig the Florida vote a second time. I think that they are easily up to attempting to ‘postpone’ elections in the wake of a terrorist act, some of the more desperate are up to Reichstag type plots.
Fortunately their lack of morals is only matched by their lack of competence. I don’t think that they have remotely enough support in the military to pull something like this off. All it would take is a couple of Democratic governors to refuse any postponement and the plot would unravel.
The other possible outcome of a terrorist act close to the election is that the Bushies would blow it exactly the same way the Spanish government did. They would saturate the airwaves claiming that a vote against Bush is a vote for terrorism and assume that they will get another 9/11 like rise in the polls.
BTW, interesting that the event most likely to revive Bush’s fortunes is not even considered at this point, US troops capture Bin Laden. Fortunately it looks like the most likely guys going to eliminate him are the French.