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The Dartmouth
April 14, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Candidates near end of one of tightest races ever

In the political footrace that is the campaign trail, leading candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore are running side by side, according to current polls, with neither one able to gain any significant distance on his opponent.

And with only seven days left, the smallest change could spell victory or defeat for either one of them.

The question is, how did the race get so close? Let's review the key moments in each of the presidential hopefuls' campaigns.

Vice Presidential picks

One of the most important factors in the race for the White House was the candidates' choices of vice-presidential running mates.

In the case of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney was considered by many to be part of a Republican balancing act. Cheney, who served as White House Chief of Staff in the Ford Administration and Secretary of Defense under former President George Bush, Sr., directed Operation Just Cause in Panama and Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf.

The younger Bush, who has been criticized for his lack of experience in both foreign and domestic affairs, did well to pick the seasoned Cheney, according to Republican consultant Sol Russo, who was interviewed by The San Francisco Chronicle.

Russo also voiced his opinion of Cheney as a safe choice for the Bush camp.

"While it's not an uproarious, dancing in the streets type choice, everyone agrees that Cheney is solid. Bush didn't hurt himself."

After the announcement of Bush's choice was made just a week before the Republican National Convention, the immediate reaction of voters was not very strong.

A poll conducted by the Gallup organization showed that 14 percent of those surveyed were more likely to vote Republican as a result of Cheney being on the ballot, but 10 percent indicated they were less likely. This difference of four points was only marginally higher than the net result of zero which Dan Quayle added to the GOP ballot in 1988.

Gore's pick of Senator Joseph Lieberman obtained a slightly larger immediate response from voters. The Gallup poll conducted the day of the announcement indicated that 16 percent of registered voters were more likely to vote for the Gore/Lieberman ticket while only four percent were less likely.

However, at the time of the press release, the poll revealed that among all registered voters, 53 percent didn't know enough about Lieberman to make a decision. This stands in contrast to the 38 percent of voters who indicated they were unfamiliar with Cheney.

While a Gore campaign official was cited in The Boston Globe as saying that although Jews usually vote Democratic anyway, Lieberman's presence on the ballot could solidify the Jewish vote in states like Pennsylvania and Michigan.

But according to campaign aides, a much more important factor in tapping Lieberman was his stance toward President Clinton's actions in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He was the first Democratic senator to openly lambaste the President's actions.

Indeed, Gore has skipped the mention of the "C-word" in his campaign. But assistant professor of government Lynn Vavreck feels that by distancing himself from Clinton, Gore has also given up some of the positive association with the booming economy.

The conventions

Both Vavreck and assistant government professor Dean Spiliotes agreed that the Republican and Democratic national conventions were also key points in the frontrunners' campaigns.

Before the Republican National Convention, Bush led Gore by an average of 7.5 percentage points during the months of June and July. After the convention, support for Bush surged to 55 percent of likely voters while the same measure for Gore dropped to 37 percent, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted the week after the convention.

Vavreck said that by suggesting the Clinton Administration failed to capitalize on the opportunity it was given, Bush struck a resonant chord with voters.

"Instead of seizing the moment, the Clinton-Gore Administration has squandered it ... They have not led. We will," Bush said in his nomination acceptance speech at the convention.

One key area in which Bush pulled ahead after the speech was improving his image as a "strong and decisive leader." The Gallup poll indicated that 71 percent of likely voters believed him to possess this quality, up about 10 points from before the convention.

For Al Gore, the level remained at the 50 percent mark.

But when the Democratic National Convention rolled around two weeks later, Gore experienced similar upswings of support.

While Gore had lost some ground immediately after the GOP convention, he regained it after his own party's rally, bringing the race to a virtual dead heat, with Gore ascending to 47 percent support among likely voters and Bush dropping to 46 percent.

The now-famous kiss between the Vice President and his wife Tipper was an important moment during the convention.

Columnist Clarence Page for The Detroit News wrote, "Informing the public about the candidates and their issues is what conventions are for, which is what made the Kiss so important. People want to hear about issues, but they also remember what they are shown."

Compared to the four Gallup polls conducted in the summer, Gore held a post-convention net increase of six percent while Bush had a net decrease of 2 percent.

The Debates

Both Vavreck and Spiliotes also agreed that the three debates were important moments in the campaigns.

During the first debate held at the University of Massachusetts, each candidate attacked the other's plans for the future, but largely refrained from personal attacks until the very end.

While Gore tried to paint Bush as friendly to the rich, Bush responded with criticism of Gore as a Washington insider who was unable to rise above party lines.

Bush also attacked the Clinton-Gore administration for its failure to get things done.

"I'm not of Washington. I'm from Texas," Bush said. "I've been the chief executive officer of the second biggest state in the union. I've had a proud record of working with both Republicans and Democrats, which is what our nation needs. We need somebody who can come up to Washington and say, Look, let's forget all the politics and all the finger pointing and get some positive things done on Medicare and prescription drugs and Social Security."

After the debate, polls indicated that Bush had gained on Gore in categories such as "has a vision for America's future," in which Bush led 46 percent to 40 percent, and "shares your values," in which he led 47 percent to Gore's 42 percent.

Spiliotes said he thinks that part of the reason for Bush's surge in the polls following the debate was his ability to surprise those who had a low expectations of his debating performance.

But Bush didn't win on every count. After the debate, the same poll indicated that Gore led Bush 47 percent to 39 percent in the category "understands complex issues." This was essentially a reversal of the same statistics from a poll taken in early August.

Similarly, Gore led in the overall rating of who did better in the debate, 48 percent to 41 percent.

Bush also came out strong after the second debate, according to the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, which took the immediate reaction of likely voters after the debate. Forty-nine percent said they thought Bush did the better job, while only 36 percent said the same for Gore.

One of the key elements of the second debate was Bush's demonstrated familiarity with worldly issues, Vavreck said.

"In many ways, the candidates sought to dispel the same critiques and stereotypes that have plagued them in the campaign. Mr. Bush sought to show that he was no bumbler and that he could comfortably navigate the ins and outs of policy, particularly foreign affairs," Richard L. Berke wrote in The New York Times.

When ranked individually, 60 percent of Bush supporters said they were more confident in their candidate after the debate, compared to 46 percent of Gore supporters.

In the third debate, those polled gave almost equal marks to both candidates. Forty-six percent thought Gore had done the better job, while 44 percent thought Bush had come out on top. These results favored Gore despite a pre-debate polling indicating that 52 percent of the people polled favored Bush, while 43 percent favored Gore.

Coming out of the debates, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed that Bush had averaged 48 percent of the vote since Oct. 4, while Gore hovered around 42 percent.

Although the candidates' choices of vice-presidential candidates and the debates were probably the most important moments in the campaign, there were others as well.

Other issues

Spiliotes said criticism of Al Gore's exaggerations in the first debate was not beneficial, although the overall effect was small.

On the other hand, Gore's refusal to ask the NAACP to remove a controversial ad that branded Bush as opposing hate crimes legislation did help him. The ad, which features the daughter of James Byrd Jr. saying that Bush refused to sponsor hate-crimes legislation in Texas, ran in The New York Times and on television and was not sponsored by the Democratic Party.

However, the ad was potentially misleading, because Texas legislation does cover racial hate crimes, like the Byrd murder.

Because it is such a close election, the campaigns have recently taken a slightly different turn than past campaigns.

"This is why candidates are campaigning in states where they don't usually campaign and this is why they have targeted their advertising so tightly around those key swing states and have ignored the rest of the country," Vavreck said.