The New Shape of the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election

August 24, 2000

Originally published in Korean

To the surprise (if not embarrassment) of many commentators on American politics, a flurry of polls taken after the Democratic convention in Los Angeles produced consistently good news for Vice President Al Gore. The advantage in the presidential contest enjoyed by Republican Governor George W. Bush throughout the year has vanished; Gore has opened a small though statistically insignificant lead; and, perhaps most importantly, the public’s assessment of the Vice President—on personal grounds and on his ability to handle the country’s most pressing problems—has improved markedly.

How seriously should we take this sudden reversal of fortunes in the polls? Is this a temporary surge due entirely to the largely favorable coverage of the Democratic convention, a surge that will recede in the days and weeks ahead? Is this yet another example of the volatility of public opinion during a year in which peace and prosperity have left most Americans disengaged from and inattentive to the political process?

Polls taken before late summer of an election year are notoriously unreliable in picking the November victor—not much better than chance. And yet polls have shaped the media coverage of the campaign throughout the year. The consistent Bush lead focused a good deal of attention on the alleged personal strengths of Bush and weaknesses of Gore, and on the supposedly fateful campaign decisions of the two candidates during the winter and spring. It also led analysts to argue that the basic structure of American elections—in which the party in the White House is returned to power during times of peace and prosperity—has been altered by the unprecedented period of economic prosperity, the end of the Cold War, and the residue of scandal and impeachment.

Now that the empirical justification for this pattern of media coverage and analysis—the Bush lead in the polls—has disappeared, at least temporarily, it is time to return to basics. While the vast majority of votes cast in presidential elections are consistent with party attachments, there are enough swing voters (i.e. loosely connected partisans and independents) to tilt the outcome toward one major party or the other. In past elections these swing voters have been responsive to objective conditions in the economy and in the national security of the U.S., but also to their subjective assessments of how well the incumbent administration is doing in managing the country’s challenges.

Since most citizens ordinarily pay little attention to politics and public affairs, presidential campaigns are important mainly in helping voters find their way home—that is, in reassuring them to stick with their party or in clarifying how they can register their judgement on the incumbent administration. If one party is seen as ideologically extreme or as proposing policies that seem to threaten the interests and values of swing voters, its electoral fortunes can suffer. And if there is a significant disparity between the campaigns—in the personal attractiveness of the candidates, in the resonance of their campaign themes and policy agendas, or in their effectiveness in turning out their supporters—that too can make a difference at the margin.

What then can we conclude about the shape of the 2000 election campaign and its most likely outcome? First, since late summer polls do begin to produce more reliable and stable results, Gore’s surge in support should not be viewed as evanescent. On average half of candidates’ postconvention “bounce” in the polls lasts until November. The share is even higher for candidates who are trailing at the time of their party conventions. Indeed, the pattern in 2000 looks remarkably like that of 1988, when another Vice President seeking the White House (George Bush) closed a huge deficit in the polls during his convention and went on to take a lead he never surrendered. A much neglected reality of American elections is that a vice president’s political standing in a presidential contest cannot be measured accurately until after his nominating convention.

Second, while there is a natural desire for change after a party has controlled the presidency for eight years, that market for change is shaped by objective conditions in the country and assessments of how well the incumbent administration has performed. Bush’s effort to make the election a referendum on restoring dignity and honor to the White House and civility to Congress is constrained by the more immediate and tangible interests of voters in the condition of the economy and policies that might shape its future and their well being. There simply is no precedent in American history for deposing a party from power when times are good and citizens view them as such.

Third, Gore has emerged from the Democratic convention as the acknowledged leader of his party, as a man who is viewed as a partner in the team that governed during prosperous times but with a very different personal profile than President Clinton, and as a candidate who disagrees sharply with his opponent on a host of issues including tax cuts, prescription drugs, social security reform, abortion and gun control. This transformation in public opinion puts him in a strong position to maintain or increase his lead between now and November.

Nothing is certain in politics, including a Gore victory in November. Close elections are the norm when two nonincumbent candidates seek the presidency. Divisions in party ranks between new Democrats and traditional constituencies such as labor and minorities could depress Democratic turnout. Gore’s populist rhetoric might alienate suburban voters. Sustained economic recovery may well diminish the potency of pocketbook issues. Bush might surprise Gore in the debates and emerge as an exceptionally strong candidate whose centrist appeals trump his party’s conservative platform. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader might siphon off enough Democrats to deny Gore victory in some key battleground states.

These and other developments that work to Bush’s advantage could come to pass. But there is no avoiding the conclusion that this presidential election is Al Gore’s to lose.