By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Having pulsated subliminally over the airwaves, the rats are now leaving the sinking ship.
At first glance, the news that a Republican National Committee ad for George W. Bush flashed the word ”RATS“ on the screen for a 30th of a second while the voice-over narrator was attacking Al Gore’s prescription-drug plan seems just the latest in a string of increasingly bizarre screw-ups which W.‘s once-vaunted campaign has committed. In fact, the ad (which the RNC yanked within hours of its revelation) is a morbid symptom of a deathly ill candidacy.
Candidates with real messages don’t go in for subliminal ones. And W. is tottering into mid-September with no viable message at all.
One of the telltale signs of a candidacy flirting with extinction is the public confession of its strategists that they‘re still trying to figure out the broad themes that their candidate should address. The classic example of such an eighth-inning identity crisis was the Dukakis campaign, where, two weeks before Election Day, the governor’s aides plastered butcher paper to the walls and filled it with lists of reasons why Dukakis was running for president and why voters should support him.
It‘s not the eighth inning yet, but the comments of Bush pollster Fred Steeper in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal fall so abysmally short of strategic certitude that you have to wonder if the butcher paper isn‘t far behind. ”We still don’t know what this election‘s about yet,“ Steeper said.
It was not ever thus, of course. Until the last night of the Democratic convention, the Bush campaign thought it knew exactly what this election was about. It could never be allowed to be a normal election, where voters made their decision chiefly on the issues, for the issues this year cut clearly in favor of the Dems. W. would win if the personal trumped the political -- which, until recently, it did.
Thus, W.’s compassion was intended to convince swing voters, working-class women, and mothers particularly, that on such issues as education and health care, the differences between the candidates weren‘t all that great. On matters of morals and values, however, these voters would discern a considerable difference. A series of ”values“ questions put to voters by the Democracy Corps project over the past year showed voters -- white voters particularly -- preferring the Republicans to the Democrats on such questions as which party better understood the needs of parents and the task of strengthening families.
To the surprise of W.’s handlers and just about everyone else, Gore was doing a miserable job of connecting with those voters. On policy issues like support for schools, Gore had virtually no advantage over Bush; and on matters of personality, W. came off as a regular guy with regular values (the fact that he was a bit of a doof actually may have helped a bit), while Gore was seen (not necessarily wrongly) as a calculating stiff. In short, what the election was about, from the viewpoint of W.‘s handlers, was neutralizing the issues and having the voters choose between two guys and their values.
Over the past few weeks, however, precisely the reverse has happened. Gore has neutralized the ”personality and values“ issues and turned the election back into a choice between different public philosophies.
No wonder W.’s handlers are flummoxed. Polls taken before and after August 17 -- the date of Gore‘s acceptance speech -- almost read as if they had surveyed two different countries. If you compare, for instance, the Washington PostABC polling of September 6 with that of July 23, the percentage of voters calling Gore ”honest and trustworthy“ rises from 47 to 63, while the figures for Bush are essentially static -- moving from 61 to 62 percent. Gore’s ”favorable“ rating has also risen to the same level as W.‘s -- he’s at 59 percent, Bush is at 58. On the somewhat more pointed question of which candidate encourages ”high moral standards and values,“ it‘s a wash: Each pulls down 44 percent
While Gore has closed W.’s lead on personal and ”values“ issues, he‘s opened a wide lead on policy questions. In July, looking again at the PostABC polling, W. led Gore by 13 percent as the candidate best able to manage the budget; last week, Gore led Bush by 5 percent. In July, both were judged equally capable of dealing with education; last week, Gore led by 12 percent.
The numbers that matter most, of course, are those that show Gore surging into and then holding a slim lead since the night of his acceptance speech. In swing states where he’d long been trailing -- Pennsylvania, Michigan, Missouri -- Gore now holds a narrow lead, and he‘s running even slightly ahead in a crucial state thought to have been solidly in W.’s corner, Florida.
How did the stumblebum campaign that Al Gore ran between the end of the primaries (March) and the advent of the convention (August) turn itself around? The rise of Al Gore began with the late-July hiring of Stan Greenberg as the campaign‘s new pollster -- one who, in contradistinction to W.’s Fred Steeper, knows exactly what this election is all about.