Blame Game Beckons Bush and Gore (posted March 31, 2000)(reprinted from Newsday, March 31, 2000)

With the nominations of Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore now assured, America faces the earliest start to the fall election in recent memory. Each candidate already is running television ads that point out differences with the opposition and is attempting to take advantage of the lessons learned from the nomination experience. Based on the events of the last six months, there are several conclusions that each campaign should take to heart.

1) Play the Blame Game: One of the most creative responses that both Bush and Gore had during their primary battles was to go negative on the opposition while simultaneously accusing the opponent of being shrill and negative. The reason for this strategic innovation is that each man realizes that negative campaigning is successful at pinning unfavorable information on the opposition but also that negativity risks a voter backlash from voters who loathe that style of campaigning.

During the primaries, Bush and Gore attempted to achieve major strategic goals by blaming his opponent for the negative tone of the campaign. For example, in South Carolina, Bush attacked Arizona Senator John McCain for not being a true reformer while also complaining about McCain's unfair attacks on himself. The results speak for themselves. Exit polls revealed that more voters blamed McCain than Bush for the negativity of that primary, and that more people saw Bush than McCain as the real reformer in the race. Both of these impressions were crucial in helping the Texas governor win the balloting.

On the Democratic side, Gore effectively criticized former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley for proposing an expensive health care reform, for being too liberal, and being out of touch with ordinary voters. Not only did the vice president not get blamed for going on the offensive, his aggressive tactics worked. Voters came to see Bradley as not having an effective plan for dealing with the country's problems and for not offering a better alternative to Gore.

2) Stick to Home-court Issue Advantages as Much as Possible: Despite the early stage of the race, voters already are seeing the likely nominees in different sorts of ways and giving a slight edge to each candidate on different issue domains. For example, a CNN/Time magazine national survey conducted recently 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 individual is a seasoned campaigner, look for each aspirant to play to his home-court issue advantage and to attempt to defuse areas of weakness. Already, Bush is talking about the need for education reform and the inadequacies of the Clinton/Gore efforts in this area.

3) Focus on Change and Reform, Not the Status Quo: 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 makes Bush's argument tricky. He needs to play to voter's desire for change while at the same time recognizing that the country is at peace and experiencing record prosperity.

4) Prepare for a Negative Campaign: One quality that marked the nominating strategies of Bush and Gore was a willingness to do whatever it took to win, including a propensity to go negative on the opposition. When Democratic challenger 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 McCain 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.

5) Look for Good Cop/Bad Cop Campaigning: 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. Both Gore and Bush will rely on outside groups to carry the most negative messages in the race. 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 overall goal of the ad campaign will be to pin negative material on the opponent without getting blamed by voters for practicing attack politics.