- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 29, 2000

All of the political "experts' are surprised that Al Gore has now surged to the lead in the polls after one mediocre convention speech, especially the Republicans who thought they were 16 points ahead the week before. What's happening?

George W. Bush's lead the week before ranged from 3 percentage points ahead (NBC/Wall Street Journal, Zogby) to 5 (Fox), 7 (McLoughlin), 8 (ABC/The Washington Post), 9 (Democracy Corps), 10 (Newsweek), to 16 points (CNN/ USAToday/Gallup). As The Washington Post's polling director, Richard Morin, conceded, many pollsters are "cutting corners and taking unprecedented risks" to satisfy the appetite for instant news. "Tiny" samples that produce large sampling error margins, over-compressed polling periods, and unrepresentative samples are the rule. A Gallup one-nighter showed Mr. Bush up by only 2 points but had 6 percent too many Democrats. But the problem is more fundamental.

Many years teaching and researching public opinion at the University of Maryland confirm that such volatility means people simply have not arrived at a firm opinion. Studies show respondents will give an answer to a question even if they have no factual information about it or have never thought about it before. Something similar is happening now. People kind of know about an election this year but, to most, it is still far away. Party activists and primary participants are the exception, but we know how they will vote in November. People in the middle give the first answer that comes into their head. Mostly, this type of unformed opinion is simply regurgitated from the last media message.

What is unprecedented is that the Republican Mr. Bush has been getting very positive coverage from the media. S. Robert Lichter, head of a study conducted by his Center for Media and Public Affairs, told the AP that, "For the first time in memory, the GOP presidential nominee is clearly beating the Democrat in the race for good press." During 1999, Mr. Bush received an incredible 71 percent positive coverage on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening news, compared to only 46 percent for Al Gore. During the primaries through March 7, it was 53 percent favorable for Mr. Bush to 40 for Mr. Gore. The Republican Convention was good news too. The bad news is this cannot last.

The first crack was unequal coverage of the two conventions. C-SPAN studied the coverage of PBS, CNN, FNC, MSNBC, ABC, CBS and NBC and found, not counting its own full coverage of both conventions, the Democratic Convention received about two more hours of invaluable TV time. There was a clear tonal change by the media after the vice president's selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman as his running mate. Whatever else may be said of it, it was a big hit with the media and made it OK to swallow Al Gore. Not only was Mr. Lieberman liberal enough (he had a lifetime American Conservative Union rating of merely 16 percent) but he sort of absolved the media from Bill Clinton's seaminess. Mr. Bush's free ride is now over.

It is a strange race, anyway. Mr. Gore is clearly the conservative in the worst sense of the word. He labels every suggested change as "risky." He does not want to change education stay away from risky vouchers; does not want to change Medicare forget about risky options like medical savings accounts; and he really does not want to change Social Security no risky personal retirement accounts even though it will explode soon when the Baby Boomers retire.

Gov. Bush is the reformer. As George F. Will put it, "some of the radicalism of the later 1960s, much gentrified, has found expression in George W. Bush's campaign. Sixties' radicalism was distinguished from earlier left-wingery by its preoccupation with ameliorating society's spiritual woes." This is what his compassionate conservatism and faith-based solutions are all about. He uses the "strong state" but it is the tax code and incentives rather than bureaucracy.

In any event, the race will be close. Pat Buchanan will be on the ballot too and, contrary to wishful thinking, he will get 2 or 3 percent, which could be the difference, to say nothing about Ralph Nader. Mr. Bush cannot coast to victory. He must emphasize that 8 million more people lack health coverage than when the Clinton-Gore administration began. Educational skills have fallen further behind. The culture is breaking. Social Security and Medicare are ready to implode. Taxes are at an all-time high. And he needs to appeal to the Buchanan voters who are upset with the rash foreign policy engagements of the Clinton-Gore years. To win, Mr. Bush must engage. The polls will always lag the action and those who await the results usually lose.

Donald Devine, former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is a columnist and a Washington-based policy consultant.

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