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Jewish World Review Sept. 18, 2000 / 17 Elul, 5760

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Consumer Reports

Is it 1988 or 1994?

Two scenarios, one favoring Gore, the other Bush --
GET OUT beyond the beltway, beyond the blare of fatuous news stories and the furious spinning of campaign spokesmen, and you hear–almost–silence. Interviews with voters in marginal districts in the key target state of Michigan, which voted within 1 percentage point of the nation in three of the last four elections, produced a few well-informed partisans for both sides, in almost equal numbers, but many more busy citizens who seem almost totally uninformed–in some cases, misinformed–about the campaign and not much taken with either candidate.

Little wonder, given the news coverage–especially the two-day flurry started when the New York Times, showing abysmal news judgment, or bias, front-paged the Republican ad that flashed the word rats on the screen for one thirtieth of a second; never mind that top ad man Donny Deutsch, who worked for Bill Clinton in 1992, says that "no serious professional subscribes to" the idea that subliminal advertising influences viewers. No similar coverage from the Times on a lawsuit charging Al Gore with doing nothing about discrimination among Secret Service agents, or when the Gore campaign refused to accommodate a reporter who uses a wheelchair, or when a woman who asked Gore about Juanita Broaddrick's assault allegations against Bill Clinton became the subject of an Internal Revenue Service inquiry.

Despite such coverage, and despite George W. Bush's failure to make his case crisply and succinctly, this is still a very close race. Nine polls taken between September 5 and 13 show Gore ahead 45 percent to 41 percent among likely voters, within the margin of error: CNN/USA Today/Gallup has Gore up 49 to 42; has Bush up 41 to 39. Some pundits are saying the election is over: Gore has won. The uncertainty, wobbliness, and inattention of those voters interviewed in Michigan make it hard to believe that further movement is impossible.

Not Dukakis. The two campaigns have in mind different models of what will happen next. For the Gore campaign, it's 1988, with Gore this time as the incumbent vice president who vastly strengthens his appeal with a resounding convention speech and romps to victory over a big-state governor who had led for months. Like George Bush in 1988, Gore led by only a few points after the convention; the question now is whether he will widen his lead, as Bush did by pummeling Michael Dukakis.

But many forget just how that pummeling was done. In 1988 Bush found issues on which Dukakis's position was not just unpopular but disqualifying for most voters. The most notable was the Massachusetts policy, backed by Dukakis over 11 years of controversy, of granting weekend furloughs to prisoners sentenced to life without parole. There was no smear here, as is commonly charged, nor does one have to be a racist to believe Dukakis had taken a defensible liberal policy and carried it to an indefensible extreme. Bush ads just kept pointing out the facts, and his lead, only 4 points right after his convention, soared to around 10 in mid-September. That hasn't happened this year. The polls are about where they were after the two conventions. And there is no disqualifying issue in sight.

For the Bush strategists, the model is Bush's own campaign for governor in Texas in 1994. His strategy was three yards and a cloud of dust: Emphasize the same four issues over and over, withstand the scornful attacks of the opposition, avoid changes in strategy despite trailing in the polls. Trail he did, all through September; only in October did public polls show him ahead, by small margins. He won 53 to 46.

But he will find it hard to win on character now that Gore's is rated as positively as his own. And supposedly, as Democrats and many journalists repeat in a mantra, the issues favor Gore. But that depends, as usual, on how the issues are framed. If the question is who will pour more money into the current educational system and who will continue the current Social Security system essentially unchanged, Gore wins. But Bush's proposals for more accountability in education and for Social Security personal investment accounts played well with voters when he had their attention from April through July. His problem is that since the Democratic convention he has often stepped on his message. Finally last week, on the stump and in a new issue ad, Bush and Cheney seemed back on message.

One other factor to keep in mind: the polls. In 1996, all nine major pre-election polls projected a higher vote for Bill Clinton and a lower vote for Bob Dole than the actual result. All but one were within the margin of error, but it is odd to have all the polls off on one side. Also, the generic House vote question–which party's candidate for the House will you vote for?–has consistently understated the Republican vote. Is there a Democratic tilt to the polls? No one can be sure, but some experts–the late Everett Ladd, exit-poll pioneer Warren Mitofsky–suspect there is. If so, the apparent narrow Gore lead could be a dead heat or maybe even a Bush lead. So far, 2000 has not proved to be 1988, as the Democrats hope, or 1994, as the Republicans hope, but it could still be either. Stay tuned.

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.


09/09/00: A fair question
08/28/00: Making labor's day
07/11/00: The new Mexico: The 20-year history behind an overnight change
07/06/00: A textbook campaign: Bush makes hay before the convention lights shine
06/23/00: Beat the press
06/06/00: Reining in regulators: Will the Supreme Court clip Washington's wings?
05/25/00: In plain English: Bilingual education flunks out of schools in California
04/28/00: Gore in the balance: His book reveals a fanatical approach to the environment
04/04/00: President-elect Putin offers a basis for hopes–and for fears
03/14/00: Over the long, long haul, the issues may yet favor the Republicans
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