I think I finally figured out why George W. Bush spent two precious days recently campaigning in California, a state he’s highly unlikely to win. It couldn’t have just been a mind-game he was playing with Al Gore–the debates are over, and there’s no longer such a big payoff for messing around with Gore’s head. Clearly, the California trip was part of Bush’s general Confidence Con, the impression he has been trying to give, to the press and the public, that he’s coasting to victory (even though he’s only a couple of points ahead in national polls and appears to be in worse shape in some key states). But why the Confidence Con?
Yes, Bush wants to get the votes of last-minute deciders who want to “go with a winner.” And he knows winners tend to get initially good press coverage, as reporters try to explain why they are winning. But these seem weak justifications for Bush forgoing campaign time in Florida, a probably must-win state in which he’s actually behind, according to some polls. There must be some other explanation, one that is based on Bush’s Florida trouble.
There is. The obvious key to the puzzle: Nader voters. Because Bush knows he might lose Florida, his strategists–far from being confident–must be quite desperately looking around for other piles of electoral votes they might snatch to make up for a Florida loss. The lowest-hanging fruit? The three-to-seven states–especially Washington, Oregon, Michigan, and Minnesota–where a big Nader vote might give a plurality to Bush. But what will produce a big Nader vote in the face of the Gore campaign’s intense and effective pitch that a vote for Nader could elect Bush? Answer: If Nader-leaning voters think Bush has it wrapped up anyway, they’ll be much more willing to check off Nader in order to at least register their protest against the major-party candidates.
In this not-implausible model of voter behavior, once Gore sinks low enough in the polls, or more precisely once voters’ estimates of his chances sink low enough, he hits a kind of “tipping point” in which his voters start defecting to Nader in droves, and his vote plummets. By exuding confidence, Bush was trying to push voters in Washington, Oregon, etc., over that tipping point.
It’s a clever strategy on Bush’s part. But it’s not a sign of confidence.