Guide to 2000 Pres. Election (posted March 19, 2000)

With the nominations of Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush assured, America faces the earliest start to the fall election in recent memory. Each candidate already is pointing out differences with the opposition and positioning himself for the campaign. The only thing that is certain at this point is that an eight-month general election will test the patience and attention span of the American public. In this report, I take a close look at the upcoming presidential election with guidelines on what to watch as the race unfolds.

Expect a Close Race

Early surveys matching Gore versus Bush show a close election between the two men. Gore has the advantage of a country at peace and experiencing prosperity, which strengthens his argument that he is the one best able to build on the strong economy of the past eight years. Bush, on the other hand, is in a strong position to appeal to votes interested in change. Typically, after eight years of any president, Republican or Democrat, citizens look for a change in philosophy and outlook. But the fact that two-thirds of Americans believe the country is headed in the right direction could mitigate this desire for change.

Despite the early date of the race, voters give a slight edge to each candidate on different issue domains. For example, a CNN/Time magazine national survey conducted in March found that voters thought Bush best able to handle the issue of crime, while Gore was advantaged in terms of education, health care, Social Security, and world affairs. In terms of personal qualities, Gore was rated stronger on caring and sincerity, but not on honest and trustworthiness. Since each is a seasoned campaigner with some exposure to national politics, look for each to play to his area of strength and to attempt to defuse areas of weakness.

Prepare for a Negative Campaign

A quality that marked the nominating strategies of Bush and Gore was a willingness to do what it took to win, including a propensity to go negative on the opposition. When Democratic challenger Bill Bradley mounted a serious bid to deny Gore his party's nomination, the vice president responded with sharp and pointed criticisms of Bradley's health care proposals and past political experience. Bush did the same thing when Arizona Senator John McCain's campaign upset Bush in New Hampshire and garnered favorable coverage from reporters. Criticizing his opponent as a hypocrite and fake reformer, Bush beat back the McCain challenge and secured enough delegates for his party's nomination.

With the expectation of a close race and each man having clearly identified weaknesses, look for each candidate to point out differences with the other. Neither will make the 1988 mistake of Michael Dukakis of not responding when criticized by the opponent. Both Gore and Bush will mount aggressive defenses of themselves and make pointed criticisms of the other. The 10 to 20 percent of the voters who will be undecided near the end of the campaign will be the object of their appeals. These are individuals who tend to be political independents and who live in the suburbs. Their fears and concerns will occupy the attention of the presidential candidates.

It's Still the Economy, Stupid!

The most powerful person in this election is Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. While the national economy continues to be strong, keep in mind that Greenspan has raised interest rates several times and indicated he will continue raising them until the economy slows down and lessens the chance of inflation. If the election were held right away, the strong economy would be a strong plus for Democrat Gore since voters tend to reward the party controlling the presidency for positive economic performance. However, a slowing economy benefits the opposition party of the GOP. The key will be how rapidly and quickly the economy slows down. Each month, the Commerce Department publishes information on personal income growth. Annualized growth rates in real disposable income above 4 percent advantage Gore, while gains of 2 percent or less would benefit Bush. Anything in between would signal a competitive race between the two parties, with the outcome depending on short-term factors such as debate performance, quality of the advertising, and favorability of the media coverage.

Remember It's a 50-State Election

Although we are used to think of the presidential campaign as a national election, you should remember that in reality, it is a 50-state election due to the Electoral College. Votes get tabulated on a winner-take-all basis at the state level in the Electoral College. Roughly two-thirds of the states have a tendency to lean Republican or Democratic in presidential elections. Republicans should do well in the South and Rocky Mountain areas, including big states Texas and Florida. Democrats have a history in recent years of carrying New England, New York, and California. Look for close races in 12 to 15 battleground states, such as Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and in traditionally competitive states such as Washington, Colorado, North Carolina, New Mexico, and Kentucky. Candidates will focus their scarce time and advertising dollars on these close states and not devote much of a sustained effort to the other states.

Watch the Third Parties

Third party candidates Pat Buchanan (Reform Party) and Ralph Nader (Green Party) are not expected to receive more than a few percentage of the national vote. But in a few close states, each could influence which candidate wins that area's popular vote and hence the Electoral College votes associated with that state. See how Bush and Gore, respectively, deal with these third party challenges by attempting to co-opt their issues and supporters. Since neither Buchanan nor Nader are expected to meet the popular support threshold for inclusion in the Fall television debates, this exclusion will limit the ability of each to garner much popular support overall.

Pay Attention to Outside Groups

One thing that will be distinctive in 2000 is reliance on outside groups to carry the most negative messages in the race. Since current campaign finance rules allow political parties and independent interest groups to broadcast ads for or against specific individuals, look for the candidates to practice "good cop/bad cop" routines in which they deliver more positive messages, while outside organizations sympathetic to each candidate run more hard-hitting messages. The virtue of this strategy is that it allows candidates to appear to be above the partisan fray and thereby helps them avoid voter wrath for negative campaigning. The goal in the campaign is to pin negative material on the opponent without getting blamed by voters for practicing attack politics.

Keep Your Eye on the Vision

In the end, Americans will have to choose between two very different visions for the future. Bush has proposed over a $1 trillion dollar tax cut based on the anticipated federal budget surplus. His vision favors a smaller and less activist federal government. As evidenced by his nomination battle against McCain and Steve Forbes, Bush favors a tough line on social issues and a national policy that is less friendly to the environment and more attuned to economic development.

In contrast, Gore prefers a much smaller tax cut, with more of the surplus being devoted to shoring up Social Security and Medicare. The vice president has come out in favor of President Bill Clinton's proposal to extend prescription drug benefits to Medicare recipients and wants to use some of the budget surplus to fix the pending fiscal crisis of the Social Security Trust Fund.

Since both the political and policy stakes are unusually high, look for voter turnout to go up in the Fall election. One positive feature of the 2000 primaries was that voter turnout went up nearly every place there was a competitive race. If voters believe that their vote matters and don't get turned off the negative campaigning that is likely to emerge over the course of the next eight months, we may see a small uptick in the numbers of Americans going to the ballot box. If that is the case, that would be a nice way to end the first election of the new Millenium.