Tags: Ten | Lessons | Learned

Ten Lessons Learned

Wednesday, 08 November 2000 12:00 AM

Instead, Gore found himself in the battle of his life. ''One of the lessons is that the economy has been so good for so long that people almost take it for granted,'' says Al From, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

Voters in pre-election polls were more likely to credit Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan for the good times than the administration. Despite Gore's warnings, they didn't seem convinced Republican George W. Bush posed a threat to the economy.

In fact, James Carville, the Democratic strategist credited with the 1992 slogan, says the Gore campaign should have made the nation's prosperity a more central part of his message. ''The vice president needed to vest in it,'' Carville says. Political scientist Stephen Wayne of Georgetown University in Washington agrees: ''You're right when you say, 'It's not just the economy, stupid.' But that's because Gore has not emphasized the economy, because he's stupid.''

2. Personality matters.

The two presidential candidates appeared more often on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" during this campaign than they did on "Meet the Press." In the final weekend before Election Day, both nominees appeared in self-deprecating cameos taped for a prime-time special by the satirical "Saturday Night Live."

Gore's surge after the Democratic convention was credited less to his sturdy speech than to his clutch-and-kiss of wife Tipper on stage. And the vice president's bad reviews after the first debate stemmed not from what he said but from his overbearing manner and audible sighs. The public's choice of president this year seemed to be based as much on personal characteristics as well as policy issues.

Although Bill Clinton's saxophone-playing appearance on "The Arsenio Hall Show" in 1992 was criticized as a degradation of the office he was seeking, such bookings were de rigueur this year.

"What undecided voters are deciding is, who do they want to invite into their living rooms over the next four years?" says Republican consultant Scott Reed. That question helped give the affable Bush his opening as the challenger in a time of prosperity.

"Gore is smarter, more articulate, more experienced, and yet he's not blowing this election away," independent pollster John Zogby said before the returns were counted. Why? "It is the fact that he's just a less likable character than George Bush."

3. ... but how much does money count?

This is expected to be the first $3 billion election, a record built on other records: Most money raised for a primary campaign (more than $100 million, by Bush); most raised at a single event ($26.5 million, at a Democratic gala on May 24 in Washington); most spent in a Senate race ($80 million, in New York's contest between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rick Lazio); most spent in a House race ($10.1 million, in the California race between Republican Rep. James Rogan and Democrat Adam Schiff).

"This will be looked back on as the year the system truly imploded," says Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., a leading reform advocate.

But there was so much money – and in both parties, although Republicans had more – that its potency was reduced. The millions of dollars one side spent were offset by the millions from the other side. "There is a diminishing return," Democratic strategist Paul Begala says. There are only so many time slots to buy on local TV in hard-fought states, after all.

4. The telephone connects with more voters than the Internet does.

''Is 2000 going to be to the Internet what 1960 was to television and politics?'' asks Phil Noble, president of PoliticsOnline – that is, the year that a medium emerged as a force in political campaigns. ''I think the answer is undoubtedly 'yes.' ''

The Internet became the way campaigns communicated with reporters and supporters. It also generated perhaps $50 million in political contributions.

However, when it comes to persuading undecided voters, the Internet's power remains unproven. Instead, use of another device by candidates and interest groups exploded this year: the telephone.

''Telephones still matter,'' says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Millions of voters were contacted through automatically dialed messages recorded by everyone from Barbara Bush to President Clinton. Operating largely out of public view and difficult to track, the messages included some of the harshest and least accurate appeals of the campaign.

''We have taught ourselves as an electorate how to avoid advertising on television and radio; we know how to tune out cognitively,'' Jamieson says. ''We don't know how to do that with a telephone message on an answering machine.''

5. On televised presidential debates, watch out what you wish for.

Gore's strategists saw the nationally televised debates as the key to showcasing their more experienced candidate against an unprepared opponent. The Bush campaign seemed to agree and balked at first about participating in all three forums proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

The debates were a turning point in favor of the Republican ticket, however. In the 31 USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Tracking Polls before the debates, Gore led in 24, Bush in four and they tied in three. But in the 31 tracking surveys after the first debate, Bush led in 28 and Gore in three. After the final debate, Gore never led in the tracking poll.

''The debates changed the dynamic of the race,'' says Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. ''That was a surprise. It certainly wasn't Gore going in there and cleaning Bush's clock, as expected.''

Instead, Bush seemed knowledgeable enough for the job, while Gore annoyed some viewers by seeming, perhaps, too smart for his own good.

6. Social Security: No longer the third rail of politics in America

For 65 years, America's retirement program has been political gold for Democrats. Franklin Roosevelt proposed it, Republicans opposed it, and a political weapon was born. GOP candidates from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan who talked about changing the system found themselves on the defensive.

The political cliché calls Social Security the ''third rail'' of American politics: Grab it and be electrocuted.

Then Bush proposed partial privatization of the system. He would allow some of the Social Security payroll tax to be diverted to individual investment accounts. Gore hammered the proposal as risky and made inroads among elderly voters in Florida and elsewhere. A late commercial ridiculed Bush for a gaffe when he criticized Democrats of treating Social Security like ''some kind of federal program.''

However, the substance of Bush's plan had broad appeal among voters younger than 50, especially baby boomers, who have heard a decade of warnings about the system's future bankruptcy. A majority of voters said in exit polls they supported investment accounts.

Zogby concludes, ''The third rail has been broken.''

7. Men and women: Gender difference more different than ever.

A majority of women were clear about whom they would elect for president: Gore, by 54 percent to 43 percent. A majority of men were clear about who they would elect as well: Bush, by 53 percent to 42 percent. That 22-point combination of the differences between each man's support represents the widest gender gap since exit polls were first conducted in the election of 1972.

Even as their lives have become more alike – more women work outside the home, for instance, and more men put a priority on rearing their children – their political views are becoming more different.

Men were more likely to find Bush's personal characteristics appealing. Women were more likely to identify Gore's core issues of education, Social Security and health care as important. ''There is definitely a 'he said, she said,' '' Zogby says. ''Men are from Venus, and women are from Mars. Or vice versa.''

8. Running mates still matter, but in new ways.

Presidential candidates once chose running mates to balance the ticket geographically or in hopes of winning a big home state from their pick.

This year, Bush and Gore followed a new model: Both chose running mates who would bolster a significant personal vulnerability of their own.

''Bush needed to send a message that reassured people who didn't think he was up to the job,'' From says. ''Gore wanted to send a message as well. In effect, what [Joe] Lieberman allowed him to do was to embrace the Clinton policies and the record without embracing his bad behavior.'' Lieberman was an early Democratic critic of Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

What if voters based their votes on the vice presidential candidates alone? In the exit poll, 48 percent supported former Defense secretary Dick Cheney, 46 percent Connecticut Sen. Lieberman.

9. Don't count on once-dependable states to follow old patterns.

''Don't count West Virginia before it hatches,'' Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, advised this week . He proved to be prescient. Blue collar West Virginia voted Democratic in five of the past six presidential elections – even in the losing campaigns of Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis – but was up for grabs in this one. Bush campaigned there Friday, and the TV networks called it for him Tuesday night.

Gore made his final appearances of the campaign Monday night and Tuesday morning in Florida, which was once not only considered GOP territory but also happens to have a Bush brother as governor. Soon after the polls closed, the Sunshine State was called for Gore, only to have embarrassed network officials pull back on that prediction when the outcome seemed less certain.

''Regional differences and distinctions and old state voting patterns are fading,'' Wayne says, reflecting ''the growing nationalization of American politics.'' That follows the nationalization of other aspects of American life: the mobility of the population, the profusion of chain stores, the impact of TV networks and other national media. Former Republican national chairman Haley Barbour cites two other factors: The two major parties are at parity nationwide, and partisan loyalty among voters has declined, making independent-minded voting more common.

10. The dominant politician wasn't on this presidential ballot.

President Clinton not only wasn't on the ballot, he sometimes seemed to be under house arrest. At the behest of Gore's strategists, he stayed at the White House or behind the closed doors of fund raisers. In the final days, he made public swings only in California, his home state of Arkansas and New York, where his wife was running for the U.S. Senate.

That didn't keep Clinton from being a factor in the election, however – an important factor, although a conflicting and confusing one. Some analysts say Bush modeled his centrist policies, and his willingness to adopt the other side's popular issues, on Clinton's successful approach in 1992 and 1996. The success of Clinton's economic policies drew some voters to the Democratic ticket, but the memory of his scandals seemed to repel others. In exit polls, more than one in four voters said Clinton was one reason for their vote; those voters supported Bush by about 2-to-1.

''1988 was about Reagan,'' says Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. That election centered on whether to continue Ronald Reagan's administration by electing his vice president, George Bush, and Dan Quayle. Kristol served as Vice President Quayle's chief of staff.

''2000,'' Kristol says, ''is about Clinton.''

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Instead, Gore found himself in the battle of his life. ''One of the lessons is that the economy has been so good for so long that people almost take it for granted,'' says Al From, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Voters in pre-election polls were...
Wednesday, 08 November 2000 12:00 AM
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