Since Labor Day, the media have released about 20 polls on the presidential race. Three show a dead heat, one shows George W. Bush leading by a single percentage point, and the rest show Al Gore leading by one to 10 points. In the latest polls, Gore leads by an average of five points. It’s fashionable at this stage to caution that “anything can happen,” that Bush is “retooling,” and that the numbers can turn in Bush’s favor just as easily as they turned against him. But they can’t. The numbers are moving toward Gore because fundamental dynamics tilt the election in his favor. The only question has been how far those dynamics would carry him. Now that he has passed Bush, the race is over.
Yes, in principle, Bush could win. The stock market could crash. Gore could be caught shagging an intern. Bush could electrify the country with the greatest performance in the history of presidential debates. But barring such a grossly unlikely event, there is no reason to think Bush will recover. Ultimately, reasons drive elections. For months, pundits yapped about Bush’s lead in the polls without scrutinizing the basis of that lead. Now they’re doing the same to Gore. But look closely at the trends beneath the horse-race numbers, and you’ll realize why it’s practically impossible to turn those numbers around. Gore doesn’t just have the lead. On each underlying factor, he has the upside as well.
1. Peace and prosperity. Bush’s allies have always pointed to the incongruity between his poll numbers and the current peace and prosperity as evidence of his strength. They had it backward. That gap reflected the extent of the economic strength Gore had yet to exploit. Gore had nothing but upside on these crucial issues, while Bush had nothing but downside. On the question of which candidate can handle the economy better, the Republican convention trimmed Gore’s numbers by just one point in the USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll and two points in the Washington Post/ABC News poll. The Democratic convention, on the other hand, blew 10 and 12 points off Bush’s numbers in those polls, putting Gore on top.
There’s no reason to think this trend will stop, much less reverse. Gore can gain votes just by reciting economic data and linking those data to his administration. All Bush can do is limit his losses by disputing those links. Nobody who thinks we’re better off than we were eight years ago is going to be convinced in the next nine weeks that we aren’t. And nobody who thinks the vice president deserves some credit for this is going to be convinced that he doesn’t. At this point, the people most susceptible to persuasion are those who have forgotten the extent of economic progress since 1992 or have never considered the idea that the good economy might have something to do with the guy who stands next to Bill Clinton.
Likewise, Gore has yet to collect his full peace dividend. In the USA Today poll, the Republican convention did nothing to Gore’s numbers on the question of which candidate can better handle world affairs. It shaved just two points off his numbers on handling national defense. The Democratic convention, however, caused a nine-point surge in Gore’s numbers on handling defense and an 11-point surge in his numbers on handling world affairs. According to a New York Times/CBS News survey taken Sept. 9-11, Gore has climbed six points since late July on the question of dealing with an international crisis. On that same question, Bush hasn’t budged. Absent American bloodshed, insecurity, or humiliation, Bush can’t move the polls. Gore can.
2. Issue terrain. Bush’s old game plan was to play down ideology and reduce his policy disputes with Gore to reflections of character. Now that his lead has collapsed, Bush has reversed course: He’s using issue differences to recast the election as a war of ideologies. But there’s a good reason why Bush was avoiding ideological warfare until now. It has failed the GOP in every showdown since 1995.
This year’s polls suggest that a Bush-Gore replay of the Clinton-Gingrich debate will turn out no better. USA Today surveys taken before, between, and after the conventions indicate that Gore’s message moves twice as many voters as Bush’s does. On the question of which candidate can better handle health care, the GOP convention boosted Bush by nine net percentage points (changing a six-point Gore lead to a three-point Bush lead), but the Democratic convention gave Gore a contrary surge of 27 net points, leaving Bush at a 24-point disadvantage. On Medicare, Bush gained 15 points during the GOP convention period, then lost 27 during the Democratic convention period, leaving him at a 22-point disadvantage. On Social Security, Bush gained 16, then lost 29, leaving him at a 15-point disadvantage. On education, he gained 11, then lost 21, leaving him at a 12-point disadvantage. On taxes, he gained four, then lost 23, leaving him at a four-point disadvantage. On the budget surplus, he gained two, then lost 20, leaving him at a seven-point disadvantage. Overall, on the question of which candidate agrees with you more on issues you care about, he gained six, then lost 19, leaving him at a 10-point disadvantage.
Since then, Gore’s lead has stuck. In a Post poll taken Sept. 6, Gore had lost virtually none of the double-digit gains he had racked up on taxes, Social Security, and education between July 23 and Aug. 20. In the new Times poll, 55 percent of voters agree with Gore that the federal government “would do a better job providing affordable prescription drug coverage to the elderly” than insurance companies would. Only 31 percent take Bush’s view to the contrary. And while only 47 percent think Bush would “reduce the cost of prescription drugs for the elderly,” 61 percent think Gore would. In its Sept. 8-10 sample, the USA Today tracking poll finds Gore leading Bush by 11 net points on the question of whether either candidate’s policies would “move the country in the right direction.”
Bottom line: Bush must choose between running on character and running on issues. Running on character proved inadequate. Running on issues is worse.
3. Imbalance of negative information. Republicans who oppose the issues strategy think Bush can win instead by telling us bad stuff about Gore. But we’ve already heard all the bad stuff about Gore. For eight years, the GOP has investigated and exposed his sins with marvelous efficiency. At this point, the only news about Gore’s character would be something favorable. In the March Post poll, for example, 36 percent of voters agreed strongly that Gore was “too close to Bill Clinton to provide the fresh start the country needs.” Five months later, after Bush and the Republicans had hammered this message at their convention, that number hadn’t budged. Everyone knew Gore was Clinton’s henchman and apologist. What they didn’t know was that Gore could be anything else. When he showed at his convention that he could, the 36 percent figure fell to 28. He had nowhere to go but up.
Bush, on the other hand, has nowhere to go but down. His record is only now being investigated and exposed. A year ago, Gore had a beaten-up job approval rating of 61-30 in the USA Today poll. In the same survey, Bush had an unblemished job approval rating of 68-10. By July, however, Bush’s rating had slid to 54-18, while Gore’s hadn’t moved. That was before the Democratic National Committee began running ads last week accusing Bush of neglecting children’s health care in Texas. Since July, according to the new Times poll, the ratio of respondents who think Bush “cares about the needs and problems of people like yourself” to those who don’t has tumbled from 55-36 to 49-41—a net shift of 11 percentage points—while the ratio who say the same of Gore has held firm at 63-30.
On Wall Street, when a stock falls through its “support level”—a previous low it hasn’t breached in a long time—analysts downgrade its expected trading range. Bush’s relative position on the question of how favorably or unfavorably each candidate is viewed has now plunged through that level. From Aug. 4-18, Gore’s favorable rating in the USA Today survey rose 12 points—double its previous record increase—to 64 percent. Meanwhile, Bush’s favorable rating fell an unprecedented seven points, to 60 percent. It was the first time Gore’s favorable rating had passed Bush’s since the primaries, and the first time Bush’s unfavorable rating had ever exceeded Gore’s. And there’s no sign Bush has hit bottom. Today’s figures show Gore’s favorable-unfavorable ratio in the Times poll surpassing Bush’s for the first time—an 18-point net gain vis-à-vis Bush since July.
4. Moral expectations game. Everyone assumes that Gore is weak on credibility and character. For that reason, voters are surprised and impressed only when he appears honest and principled. Since late July, they have noticed three things about him: 1) He picked a running mate who talks about God and who condemned Clinton’s conduct in the Monica Lewinsky affair; 2) he kissed his wife passionately at the Democratic convention; and 3) he declared himself “my own man.” Bush, the candidate of morals, would have received no credit for doing these things. Gore, the candidate of the Buddhist temple and “no controlling legal authority,” has been roundly applauded for them.
In the Post survey, Gore has climbed 29 net percentage points since late July on the question of whether he’s “honest and trustworthy.” This puts him even with Bush, whose numbers on that question haven’t changed. Despite the GOP’s emphasis on bringing honor to the White House, the Republican convention failed to increase Bush’s 11-point lead on the Post’s question of which candidate would do a better job of “encouraging high moral standards and values.” On the contrary, the Democratic convention wiped out that lead. In the Times survey, Bush’s net advantage on the question of which candidate “can be trusted to keep his word as President” has dwindled from 12 points to two. And in the USA Today poll, by a net margin of 10 points, likely voters are more inclined to say that Gore, not Bush, has the personal qualities necessary to be president.
5. Collateral damage. Gore’s vulnerability, according to the Times, is that 47 percent of those who intend to vote for him have misgivings about him, whereas only 38 percent of Bush’s voters doubt their choice. Republican pugilists think Bush can pry away these ambivalent Gore supporters by running more attack ads. But Bush can’t drive up Gore’s negatives without driving up his own. After Gore’s issue-oriented convention speech and two weeks of Republican commercials slamming Gore’s character, Bush now trails Gore by 20 net points on the Times’ question of whether each candidate “has been spending more time … explaining what he would do as President or attacking” his opponent.
Likewise, Bush has fallen 16 net points below Gore on Time/CNN’s question of whether each man has “made too many attacks on his opponent.” He’s five net points below Gore on the Post’s question of whether each candidate “has been conducting mainly a positive or mainly a negative campaign.” Most ominous is Bush’s plunge on USA Today’s question of whether there’s “no chance whatsoever you would vote for” one candidate or the other. A month ago, pundits declared Gore all but dead because 47 percent of likely voters said they would never vote for Gore, while only 30 percent said that of Bush. Now 43 percent say there’s no chance they’ll vote for Bush, while only 37 percent say the same of Gore. The only candidate Bush is killing is himself.
6. Political judgment. Bush, his aides, and the Republican National Committee have made several very stupid decisions, compounded by stubbornness. Bush had positioned himself as the candidate who would “change the tone” and bring a “responsibility era” to Washington, in contrast to Gore’s gamesmanship. But in the past two weeks, Bush has approved two sarcastic personal attack ads, refused to apologize for using a gross vulgarity to describe a reporter at a campaign event, and mounted a preposterous campaign, including a TV ad, to frame Gore as a liar and coward for refusing to ditch the traditional bipartisan debates in favor of a series of smaller venues dictated by Bush.
Can Bush turn himself around? Theoretically, yes. But stupidity and stubbornness are traits. It’s unrealistic to expect a person who has just done a series of stupid and stubborn things to stop being stupid and stubborn. It took Bush and his team days to accept that nobody else saw the debate controversy the way they did. Their retreat from that ploy raised momentary hopes that they were capable of self-correction—which they promptly dashed by approving a second sarcastic attack ad virtually identical to the one that had just failed.
A candidate who puts pride before prudence, refuses to learn from his mistakes, and is capable of living for days in an alternate political universe can only survive while he’s ahead. Once he falls behind, there’s no reason to think he’s up to the task of correcting his course and regaining control of the race. Yes, Bush came back to beat John McCain in South Carolina. But in that case, Bush had a firewall of phone banks, military backers, and boundless financial superiority. The swing voters in that contest were conservative Republicans. Bush’s little-known opponent was prone to fatally undisciplined anger and was vulnerable to ads full of previously unaired negative information. Against Gore, Bush has none of those crutches. Stick a fork in him. He’s done.