Soft leads, tough calls

I suppose it's because I've been watching the political scene for so many years. I keep being asked by readers and even by my colleagues: "How do you think it's going to come out?" Unvaryingly I've given this answer: "It's close, and I think it will stay close right down to the end."

Since first providing that answer some weeks ago, Al Gore has moved in the polls from well behind to slightly ahead. But I think the contest remains close simply because of the softness - the lack of a strong commitment - that is behind the backing for both Gore and Bush.

That is, when voters tell a pollster that they're "for Gore" or "for Bush" they are not, for the most part, saying how eagerly they are looking forward to voting for their favorite candidate. Instead of "three cheers" for one or the other of these candidates (we'll omit the "third" candidates for this discussion), the voters can only muster two less-than-enthusiastic cheers or even one tepid cheer.

And now to my main point: A soft electorate like this can move back and forth rather easily.

"It's fluid," pollster John Zogby told us at a recent Monitor breakfast. "It could go right down to the wire like the Kennedy-Nixon race in 1960." That contest, lest someone doesn't remember, almost brought about a recount.

But I found my principal support for my "soft electorate" thesis in findings of pollster Celinda Lake, who also sat in with the Monitor group recently. She had measured the "intensity" of the voters in making their selection for president, and she said that supporters of both candidates were showing much less than full intensity for the man they said they liked.

And here is something this Democratic pollster disclosed that shouldn't be overlooked by those who think Bush won't be able to remain in contention to the end: According to her polling, within this general context of less-than-full intensity of support for both candidates, "we found there was more intensity for Bush than for Gore."

I don't think there are any really "burning" or "driving" issues in this election. Indeed, I've said from the first that this contest is going to be about personalities, not the issues.

Actually, what may decide the election - if it remains close, as I think it will - will be the turnout of voters.

The polls have one major deficiency. In measuring a voter's intention of voting for this or that candidate, the pollsters can't possibly know for sure whether this voter - whom they put in the "likely voter" column - really will get out and vote on election day.

Some observers of voter trends are predicting that we are going to have the lowest turnout in history (in terms of percentage of the eligible voters) in this presidential election. So even if Bush is behind a bit in the polls, he might make it a very close contest (or win) if a higher percentage of his backers than of Gore's actually get out and vote. And again, the stronger commitment for Bush than Gore among the voters - discerned by Celinda Lake - suggests that this could occur.

Now, as a reporter who has seen many predictions go wrong over the years, I must add this: I'm aware that stories reporting growing leads by one candidate or another tend to take on a life of their own, and thereby help to bring about what the stories say is happening.

In this case, with Gore's post-convention comeback, he conceivably is on his way to a commanding and irreversible lead.

But my thesis of a continuing closeness was supported by the comments of highly respected pollster Peter Hart, who recently told a Monitor breakfast the race still was very close (45 to 42 per cent) and that he saw the contest going either way "right down to the wire."

Also, former party chairmen Paul Kirk (Democratic) and Frank Fahrenkopf (Republican) came to breakfast just a few days ago and said they thought the upcoming debates (which they have been instrumental in putting together) would be "critical" to the outcome of the election. "The race is that close," they both said.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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