Back to the future?

As Rocket Man has noted, with eight days left until the election we are in essentially the same place as at the corresponding time four years ago, with George W. Bush holding slight lead of maybe three percentage points over his Democratic rival. We know that four years ago the Democrat ran ahead of his poll numbers (although not much ahead if one takes into account the margin of error), finishing one percentage point better than Bush in the popular. How likely is it that this will happen again?
The answer depends on why Gore closed so well in 2000. One theory credits the Democrats’ “ground game.” On this account, the Dems did a much better job of getting out their vote than the Republicans did. If this is true, then it could bode well for Kerry, although the Republicans seemed to win the ground game in 2002. However, there were other forces at work at 2000 that I believe also help explain the Gore bounce. One was the evaporation of Nader’s support. I expect that this will occur again this year, but Nader’s poll numbers are so low right now that this phenomenon would help Kerry much less than it helped Gore. Another factor in 2000 was the drunk driving story. I doubt that the Democrats can find a last minute stink bomb that will seriously hurt Bush this time, especially given the fact that he is such a known quantity now.
This leads to the final factor that I believe played a role in 2000 — the last minute tendency of voters to opt for the “devil they know” rather than the candidate calling for a major change. The conventional wisdom is that the undecided vote tends to break against the incumbent. However, my observation is that, in presidential elections, the undecideds tend to vote against major change. This has happened consistently in close elections — 1968, 1976 (both of which became close as a result), and 2000. It did not happen when voters opted for change in 1980 and 1992. But in these elections the incumbent was far more unpopular than President Bush is today. Yet even in 1980 and 1992, polls showed a narrowing of the gap in the latter stages of the race, albeit one that could not be sustained.
If anything, the tendency to stay with the known quantity should be more powerful this year, given the war against terrorism. Accordingly, although one can make the case for it, I don’t expect a repeat of 2000.


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