Since Labor Day, the media have released about 20 polls on the presidential race. Three show a dead heat, one shows George W. Bush leading by a single percentage point, and the rest show Al Gore leading by one to 10 points. In the latest polls, Gore leads by an average of five points. It's fashionable at this stage to caution that "anything can happen," that Bush is "retooling," and that the numbers can turn in Bush's favor just as easily as they turned against him. But they can't. The numbers are moving toward Gore because fundamental dynamics tilt the election in his favor. The only question has been how far those dynamics would carry him. Now that he has passed Bush, the race is over.
Yes, in principle, Bush could win. The stock market could crash. Gore could be caught shagging an intern. Bush could electrify the country with the greatest performance in the history of presidential debates. But barring such a grossly unlikely event, there is no reason to think Bush will recover. Ultimately, reasons drive elections. For months, pundits yapped about Bush's lead in the polls without scrutinizing the basis of that lead. Now they're doing the same to Gore. But look closely at the trends beneath the horse-race numbers, and you'll realize why it's practically impossible to turn those numbers around. Gore doesn't just have the lead. On each underlying factor, he has the upside as well.
1. Peace and prosperity. Bush's allies have always pointed to the incongruity between his poll numbers and the current peace and prosperity as evidence of his strength. They had it backward. That gap reflected the extent of the economic strength Gore had yet to exploit. Gore had nothing but upside on these crucial issues, while Bush had nothing but downside. On the question of which candidate can handle the economy better, the Republican convention trimmed Gore's numbers by just one point in the USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll and two points in the Washington Post/ABC News poll. The Democratic convention, on the other hand, blew 10 and 12 points off Bush's numbers in those polls, putting Gore on top.
There's no reason to think this trend will stop, much less reverse. Gore can gain votes just by reciting economic data and linking those data to his administration. All Bush can do is limit his losses by disputing those links. Nobody who thinks we're better off than we were eight years ago is going to be convinced in the next nine weeks that we aren't. And nobody who thinks the vice president deserves some credit for this is going to be convinced that he doesn't. At this point, the people most susceptible to persuasion are those who have forgotten the extent of economic progress since 1992 or have never considered the idea that the good economy might have something to do with the guy who stands next to Bill Clinton.
Likewise, Gore has yet to collect his full peace dividend. In the USA Today poll, the Republican convention did nothing to Gore's numbers on the question of which candidate can better handle world affairs. It shaved just two points off his numbers on handling national defense. The Democratic convention, however, caused a nine-point surge in Gore's numbers on handling defense and an 11-point surge in his numbers on handling world affairs. According to a New York Times/CBS News survey taken Sept. 9-11, Gore has climbed six points since late July on the question of dealing with an international crisis. On that same question, Bush hasn't budged. Absent American bloodshed, insecurity, or humiliation, Bush can't move the polls. Gore can.
2. Issue terrain. Bush's old game plan was to play down ideology and reduce his policy disputes with Gore to reflections of character. Now that his lead has collapsed, Bush has reversed course: He's using issue differences to recast the election as a war of ideologies. But there's a good reason why Bush was avoiding ideological warfare until now. It has failed the GOP in every showdown since 1995.
This year's polls suggest that a Bush-Gore replay of the Clinton-Gingrich debate will turn out no better. USA Today surveys taken before, between, and after the conventions indicate that Gore's message moves twice as many voters as Bush's does. On the question of which candidate can better handle health care, the GOP convention boosted Bush by nine net percentage points (changing a six-point Gore lead to a three-point Bush lead), but the Democratic convention gave Gore a contrary surge of 27 net points, leaving Bush at a 24-point disadvantage. On Medicare, Bush gained 15 points during the GOP convention period, then lost 27 during the Democratic convention period, leaving him at a 22-point disadvantage. On Social Security, Bush gained 16, then lost 29, leaving him at a 15-point disadvantage. On education, he gained 11, then lost 21, leaving him at a 12-point disadvantage. On taxes, he gained four, then lost 23, leaving him at a four-point disadvantage. On the budget surplus, he gained two, then lost 20, leaving him at a seven-point disadvantage. Overall, on the question of which candidate agrees with you more on issues you care about, he gained six, then lost 19, leaving him at a 10-point disadvantage.
Since then, Gore's lead has stuck. In a Post poll taken Sept. 6, Gore had lost virtually none of the double-digit gains he had racked up on taxes, Social Security, and education between July 23 and Aug. 20. In the new Times poll, 55 percent of voters agree with Gore that the federal government "would do a better job providing affordable prescription drug coverage to the elderly" than insurance companies would. Only 31 percent take Bush's view to the contrary. And while only 47 percent think Bush would "reduce the cost of prescription drugs for the elderly," 61 percent think Gore would. In its Sept. 8-10 sample, the USA Today tracking poll finds Gore leading Bush by 11 net points on the question of whether either candidate's policies would "move the country in the right direction."
Bottom line: Bush must choose between running on character and running on issues. Running on character proved inadequate. Running on issues is worse.
3. Imbalance of negative information. Republicans who oppose the issues strategy think Bush can win instead by telling us bad stuff about Gore. But we've already heard all the bad stuff about Gore. For eight years, the GOP has investigated and exposed his sins with marvelous efficiency. At this point, the only news about Gore's character would be something favorable. In the March Post poll, for example, 36 percent of voters agreed strongly that Gore was "too close to Bill Clinton to provide the fresh start the country needs." Five months later, after Bush and the Republicans had hammered this message at their convention, that number hadn't budged. Everyone knew Gore was Clinton's henchman and apologist. What they didn't know was that Gore could be anything else. When he showed at his convention that he could, the 36 percent figure fell to 28. He had nowhere to go but up.