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Jewish World Review Dec. 19, 2002 / 14 Teves, 5763

Bill Schneider

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Why Gore dropped out --- he never grasped one of politics' most important lessons | Why did Al Gore decide not to run? He undoubtedly found out that a lot of Democratic activists and contributors didn't want to hear from him this time around. They think he blew it in 2000.

Gore was also suffering from the vice presidential problem. Being vice president is a great way to get your party's nomination. That's because the outstanding quality in a vice president is loyalty. Partisans control the nominating process, and they value -- and reward -- party loyalty.

But once a vice president is nominated, he discovers that most voters outside the ranks of the party faithful do not value loyalty As Richard Nixon discovered in 1960, and Hubert Humphrey discovered in 1968, and Walter Mondale discovered in 1984, and Al Gore discovered in 2000, voters don't want a President who's "loyal.'' They want a President who's his own man.

The only exception in 150 years: George Bush in 1988. Being Ronald Reagan's man turned out to be a pretty good image.

Nixon eventually did get elected, in 1968. But he had to wait eight years to "recover'' from being vice president. By 2008, Gore, too, may lose the vice presidential stigma. "I make this decision in the full knowledge and awareness that if I don't run this time . . . that's probably the last opportunity I'll ever have to run for President,'' Gore told CBS "60 Minutes,'' adding "Don't know that for sure, but probably it is.'' That's not quite as definitive as Nixon saying, "You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around any more'' after losing the race for governor of California in 1962.

Gore would have been the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination.

Prof. William Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University, has studied every contested nomination in both parties since 1980. Here's what he finds: "In seven of the ten cases . . . the nominee-to-be had opened up a sizeable lead over every other eventual candidate by, at the latest, one month after the preceding midterm election -- more than a year, in other words, before the start of the actual delegate selection activities.'' Which means, at this very point in the nominating cycle.

After the 1978 midterm, Ronald Reagan was the frontrunner for the 1980 GOP nomination. After the 1982 midterm, Walter Mondale led the field for 1984 Just after the 1994 midterm, Bob Dole was the Republican favorite for 1996. And right after the 1998 midterm, Al Gore led the Democratic field for 2000.

Same thing for George Bush the Elder going into the 1988 and 1992 Republican contests. And for George Bush the Younger going into 2000. In every case, whoever led the polls after the midterm ended up winning the nomination.

There were a few exceptions. But each of them was, well, exceptional. After the 1978 midterm, Sen. Edward Kennedy -- not President Jimmy Carter -- was the frontrunner for the 1980 Democratic nomination. But just before the first primaries, the hostage crisis in Iran put President Carter back in the lead. After the 1986 midterm, Gary Hart led the Democratic field for 1988 Hart proceeded to self-destruct. After the 1990 midterm, Mario Cuomo was the Democratic frontrunner, followed by Jesse Jackson. But neither of them ran in 1992.

It's not unusual for a candidate to come out of nowhere and pull off a surprise primary victory -- like Gary Hart in 1984, and Pat Buchanan in 1996, and John McCain in 2000. Didn't they gain what George Bush called "the Big Mo'' after he beat Ronald Reagan in Iowa in 1980? Yes, each of those candidates got momentum. But none of them got the nomination. As Mayer said in an interview, "I characterize momentum as a bit like a roller coaster ride. It provides a lot of excitement. But in the end, it pretty much takes you back to where you started.''

Mayer coined the term, "the invisible primary'' -- the period from the midterm election to the Iowa caucuses, when candidates struggle for money and attention before a single vote is cast. Does the invisible primary matter? You bet it does. Because nine out of ten times, whoever wins the invisible primary becomes the nominee.

Winning the invisible primary means two things: raising the most money, and becoming the frontrunner in the polls. Here are Mayer's findings:

  • "If one focuses on the last poll taken before the start of delegate selection activities -- meaning, in most years, in the last poll before the Iowa caucuses -- the candidate leading in that poll went on to win the nomination'' in nine out of ten contests. The exception: Gary Hart was the Democratic frontrunner just before the 1988 Iowa caucuses.

  • "The leading money-raiser in the pre-primary campaign -- more precisely, the candidate who had raised the largest amount of money by December 31 of the year before the election -- went on to win the nomination'' nine out of ten times. The exception: John Connally had raised more money than Ronald Reagan by December 31, 1979.

Gore's decision not to run means the invisible primary becomes a real race -- a wide-open struggle to see who can raise the most money and move to the top of the polls by this time next year. "What it does is make sure there's no frontrunner,'' Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the first Democrat to get into the race this year, said. With no frontrunner, the invisible primary of 2003 will count more than ever.

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© 2002, William Schneider