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Jewish World Review March 14, 2000 /7 Adar II, 5760

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Over the long, long haul, the issues may yet favor the Republicans --
NEVER BEFORE have the two major party nominees been chosen so soon. In 1956 Dwight Eisenhower announced for re-election on February 29. This year both nominations were clinched seven days after that date, leaving eight months of campaigning before the general election November 7.

The pivot points in both contests came even earlier. For Democrats it was February 1 in New Hampshire, when Al Gore beat Bill Bradley by 50 percent to 46 percent. During the long five weeks until Super Tuesday, Bradley's efforts to make news were eclipsed by the fascinating story of John McCain. Like Franz Kafka's K. in The Castle, Bradley got tantalizingly close to his goal early in the story, then saw it loom farther and farther away.

The Republican pivot point came in South Carolina February 19. John McCain had won in New Hampshire by breaking even among self-identified Republicans and walloping George W. Bush among in- dependents. But he could replicate that pattern only in Arizona, New England, and, nearly, in New York. Outside the Northeast, the pattern was set in South Carolina, with Bush's big margins among Republicans carrying the day. The only exception was Michigan, where 17 percent of Republican votes were cast by Democrats, the only state where that number was more than 10 percent; without those Democrats, Bush would have carried Michigan, too. Exit polls starting in South Carolina showed Bush winning through the positive appeal of his "reformer with results" and McCain often being charged with unfair negative attacks.

Neck and neck. Now the race must be regarded as even: Most polls give Bush a small lead; one shows Gore slightly ahead. Among the news media, still in mourning for the McCain campaign, the assumption is that Gore will easily win. His advantages are obvious. He is the incumbent party's candidate in prosperous times, he has had far more experience in foreign policy, and he has the full-sentence fluency the press admires. He is a ferocious partisan and a strong debater. But the country is more in the mood for consensus than confrontation and, for his rat-a-tat campaign against Bradley, Gore has paid a price in high unfavorable ratings. With his harshly negative debating style he eviscerated Ross Perot in 1993 and Jack Kemp in 1996, but an awkward defense of Bill Clinton's lies allowed Dan Quayle to best him in 1992.

About Bush, the media consensus is that he moved too close to religious conservatives in South Carolina to win in November. Maybe. But the full-court press by the McCain campaign and the national media to tar Bush with Bob Jones University and Pat Robertson did not prove as damaging on Super Tuesday as many had expected. The notion that Bush condoned or shared BJU's 17th-century-style disdain for Catholicism proved implausible: In only one Super Tuesday state (Maine) did Bush run significantly lower among Catholics than among voters generally.

Meanwhile, Republican turnout was far higher than in 1996 almost everywhere–double 1996 in South Carolina and triple in Michigan, up 80 percent in California, and 43 percent in Ohio–while Democratic turnout tended to fall. Much of this increase was from McCain voters, 30 percent to 40 percent of whom say they will not vote for Bush against Gore. But many new Republican voters were voters attracted (as difficult as it is for many reporters to understand) by Bush's stands on issues and his proposals to reform education, welfare, the military, and tort law.

Also interesting, and little noticed in the press, is the increasing strength of House Republicans. For a year it has been taken as gospel that Republicans will lose their House majority this November, and certainly that is still possible. But in nine polls that asked voters which party's candidate for House they would vote for, Republicans trailed Democrats by only 43 percent to 42 percent. By contrast, they trailed 42 percent to 37 percent in 21 polls in 1998 and by 43 percent to 39 percent in 25 polls in 1996, and ended up winning more seats and winning the popular vote narrowly both times. Republicans show more strength in these "generic ballot" polls than at any time since the 1995-96 budget showdown; if that continues, and if the generic numbers continue to underpredict Republican performance, Republicans stand to gain seats this cycle.

Finally, no one can be sure what the voters' verdict will be on two issues that both Gore and Bush are convinced favor them: education and Social Security. Gore, "fighting for you," will frame these issues in old-style ways–more money on education, no changes in Social Security–that have always favored Democrats. Bush will favor "reform"–more parental choice and accountability in education, individual investment accounts as part of Social Security. His arguments will be novel to most voters and must be filtered through mostly hostile and often uncomprehending news media. Yet many polls suggest that Gore's old arguments are weakening and that many voters are dissatisfied with the status quo on education and Social Security and may be receptive to Bush's newer appeal. Eight months away, this election doesn't look like a slam-dunk for either side.

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of the biennialAlmanac of American Politics. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


03/02/00: Will unions rule? Indispensable to Gore, labor may be the campaign's secret winner
02/15/00: A reformers' party
01/03/00: The voters rule: In Manchester, Mexico, and Moscow, an imperfect system works
01/19/00: The era of Big Promises
12/08/99: Welcome to the world of 'good enough'
11/2/99: Just saying no
11/12/99: Money talks, as it should
10/28/99: Mexico votes – for real
10/03/99: Going against type
09/28/99: The unions go public
08/31/99: China's strait flush
08/25/99: The first two contests
08/03/99: Paddling upstream
07/08/99: Taking Hillary seriously
06/22/99: Trying the lawyers
06/07/99: Facts on the ground

©2000, Michael Barone