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Jewish World Review Sept 6, 2000 / 5 Elul, 5760

Roger Simon

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When Bush comes to shove -- LAST WEEK, both Al Gore and George W. Bush drove themselves crazy trying to get their poll numbers up for this week.

While in reality there is nothing magical about who leads in the polls on Labor Day, the media think whoever is ahead is going to win, and so the day has become extremely important.

If you take a look at the polls for every presidential election since 1936, you can draw one conclusion and the Gallup organization has done it for us: "If a candidate is substantially ahead around Labor Day, the odds are high that he will cruise to a victory."

That has happened three times:

In 1984, when incumbent Ronald Reagan led Walter Mondale by 19 points and went ahead to win by 18.

In 1972, when incumbent Richard Nixon led George McGovern by 28 points and went on to win by 23.

And in 1964, when incumbent Lyndon Johnson led Barry Goldwater by 36 points and went on to win by 22.

On other occasions, candidates have led on Labor Day, have seen their leads shrink to almost nothing and then squeaked out a victory.

And in the last three elections, the winner on Labor Day has gone on to win: Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and George Bush in 1988.

Farley's Law anticipated these results. James A. Farley was one of Franklin Roosevelt's chief political operatives, and he stated that there was no use campaigning after Labor Day because voters had already made up their minds by then. In other words, whoever was ahead on Labor Day won.

Farley's Law is not followed today -- polls show a large number of voters make up their minds after Labor Day -- but the results seem to prove Farley's general conclusion correct.

The one big exception, as most people know, is when Thomas Dewey led Harry Truman by 8 points on Labor Day 1948 and Truman went on to win by 5 points. The sample size is really not large enough to draw conclusions -- there have been only 16 presidential elections between 1936 and now -- but Farley's Law threw the George W. Bush campaign into a panic last week.

They were so worried Bush would be significantly behind in the polls that Bush broke his pledge not to launch personal attacks and approved a negative commercial blasting Gore for his Buddhist Temple fund raising and claim to have invented the Internet.

This was a big deal for Bush: From the beginning, he has tried to portray himself as the high road candidate and not just another politician.

This earned him some good poll numbers until recently, when Gore delivered that kiss, made that speech and got Americans to take a second look at him after the Democratic Convention.

Going negative carries another risk, and it's a big one. The women's vote is very important to both candidates because women not only register in higher percentages than men, but vote in higher percentages.

And women, polls show, especially dislike negative campaigning. So why was it worth the risk?

Farley's Law.

The Bush campaign polls every day (as does the Gore campaign), and I am guessing their polls showed what the Newsweek poll taken Aug. 30 and Aug. 31 showed: Gore leading by 10 percentage points, which is six points beyond the margin of error.

When you get a result like that, you tend to hit the panic button and this, I think, is what Bush did.

Does negative campaigning work?

Polls say people hate them, but campaigns are convinced they also change people's minds.

The Bush campaign saw Gore transforming himself into a warm and fuzzy nice guy -- in a recent Gallup Poll Gore beat Bush by two points on "Who you'd more like to have dinner with" -- and they wanted to change that image.

So they put up a commercial that casts Gore as a slithery political chameleon.

Will it work?

Well, in 1988 Bush's father put up a commercial called "Revolving Door," which reminded people that Michael Dukakis had let convicted murderers out of jail on furloughs.

It was widely denounced and, in polls, people said they hated it.

But George Bush, the elder, won and George Bush, the younger, seems to have learned his lessons from it.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate