- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 12, 2000

The August presidential polls were full of noise, and in the next week or so, we will probably get an idea of how much the events of August the two party conventions, the vice presidential selections, the beginning in earnest of the general election battle really changed things.
Anyone who believed that George W. Bush was actually ahead of Al Gore by 18 points, the high-water mark of any poll following the Republican convention, or that Al Gore was actually ahead by 10 points, his best poll result after the Democratic convention, is substituting wish for reality. Let's try to break some of this down.
First, apart from some polls just after the Republican primary struggle between Mr. Bush and Sen. John McCain, Mr. Bush enjoyed a fairly consistent lead over Mr. Gore in head-to-head matchups throughout the year. It was not an overwhelming lead, but it was persistent. To what to attribute it?
Republicans were fond of the idea that people had essentially hardened into a negative view of Mr. Gore while forming a positive impression of Mr. Bush. Democrats consoled themselves with the proposition that people had better things to do with their lives than obsess about politics so long before the actual election.
As matters developed, I think it is fair to say that each side knew the minds of its own voters rather well. Republicans (if not "Americans" writ large) do indeed have a uniformly negative view of Mr. Gore, and they like Mr. Bush. This is another way of saying that Mr. Bush has done a very effective job of uniting his party around his candidacy. The mission is clear: Beat Al Gore. And Republicans focused on it early. There truly aren't a lot of "Gore Republicans" out there.
On the Democratic side, polls through the summer consistently showed Democrats less united behind Mr. Gore. Until roughly the convention. Now, it looks like Mr. Gore has indeed brought Democrats home to the party. In other words, when Democrats started paying attention to the campaign with the same level of interest Republicans have been devoting to it for some time, they began to support their nominee as strongly as Republicans have supported theirs.
But there is an immense amount of noise in the August polls as well. In particular, there is the question of what voters who aren't especially aligned with either party are thinking. As Republican pollster Ed Goeas of the Tarrance Group is fond of saying of independents, "you can rent them, but you can't buy them." In other words, they may respond to a particular appeal with their support for the candidate making it, but not with their permanent allegiance to a candidate.
This is central to the "bounce" candidates get from conventions. For a week in Philadelphia, what people heard was "Bush, Bush, Bush." They heard Republicans focusing for four days on what a swell guy he is. So when pollsters called, a number of folks probably said, "Bush." In Los Angeles, people heard, "Gore, Gore, Gore." He said he was his "own man" and he kissed his wife. As Frank Sinatra once sang of Chicago, that toddlin' town, "They have the time, the time of their life. I saw a man and he danced with his wife." Hence, when pollsters called, it was "Gore."
Meanwhile, candidates traditionally lay low during the other party's convention. (I wonder how many more elections this quaint practice will last.) The surrogates are out, but it's really only the candidate who can drive a message. The "bounce" phenomenon is therefore the product of the nonaligned voter's temporary response to an uncontradicted appeal for support. Put another way, if you can't show an increase in support for your candidate in circumstances in which you alone hold a very powerful microphone for an entire week, you probably ought to consider another line of work.
It is folly to interpret the result of this phenomenon as a permanent change in voters' thinking one way or the other. Republicans were wrong to think that Mr. Bush had the election locked up coming out of Philadelphia. Democrats (operating in the congenial echo chamber of a national media eager to develop the "Gore comeback" story line the race has so far lacked) would be equally foolish to think that Mr. Gore is now on a runaway train to victory. In fact, Mr. Gore's bounce has receded, and most polls are now about even.
I think that what changed in August was this: Democrats got in the game the way Republicans have been in it. The partisan ranks of the electorate are roughly even. So are the polls. And the independents responsible for the wild swings of August have now "moved on," as we like to say in Washington in this case, probably to the Olympics.
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