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R: PHX, S: FEATURES, D: 11/16/2000, B: Robert David Sullivan,

Political science

Thanks to finely tuned focus groups, opinion polls, and computer models of voter behavior, we can expect more elections like the one we're still trying to figure out

by Robert David Sullivan

This year's Presidential election was the political equivalent of a meteor slamming into our planet, one that no one spotted until it was too late. And yet it was almost inevitable.

More than ever before, politics this year was dominated by tracking polls, focus groups, and scientific models of voter behavior. Each presidential candidate could see exactly where his opponent was picking up votes, and he could figure out exactly where to get enough votes to compensate.

It's no wonder that the Bush campaign reacted with such outrage when the networks projected a solid Gore win in Florida early on Election Night. Bush strategists had the numbers -- not votes, mind you, but their own polls -- to prove this was impossible. And everybody already suspected that Florida would decide it all, because the pundits had said so the day before, just as they'd predicted the closest election since 1960.

After months of campaigning and millions of dollars in television commercials, Bush and Gore spent the final weekend before the election fighting over a few thousand votes in a handful of states. We've come a long way from the days when an underdog like Harry Truman could spend Election Day praying for several million votes to swing into his column. The newspapers in 1948 were wrong because of bad polls; the television networks this year were wrong because of too many polls. Neither candidate could sneak past the other -- it's now impossible to pull ahead in a state, or even a county, when the other guy isn't paying attention -- and so they ended up in a total stalemate. The presidential campaign resembled an NBA game between two evenly matched teams, where the lead can always be wiped out with a three-pointer.

Professional athletes have been drowning in statistics for a long time, but now it seems that every aspect of life is dictated by data. In Hollywood, movie endings are decided by focus groups, and the result is pretty much the same as in politics: box-office winners that most people can tolerate but that few of us really like. (Future correct answer on the Miller Analogy Test: Al Gore is to John F. Kennedy as Meet the Parents is to Bringing Up Baby. And George W. Bush is to Richard Nixon as the 1998 remake is to the original Godzilla.) Marketing research can make or break a neighborhood: everyone knows that a business district has gone upscale when a Starbucks moves in. Whatever people think about the coffee, they don't dispute the infallibility of the chain's polling data.

One effect of a data-driven society is that there's a greater stigma attached to losing, which may help explain why it's taken so long to get a concession from either side in this election. When a business suffers a setback (say, New Coke), detractors can usually point to marketing research that should have warned the company of impending disaster. When the prosecution lost the O.J. Simpson case, many commentators blamed the state for not using jury consultants to predict the outcome, as the defense team did so effectively.

In the past, presidential candidates such as Barry Goldwater and George McGovern got a certain amount of respect for taking a chance with new ideas and losing on principle. Walter Mondale, who promised a tax increase in 1984, was probably the last major-party nominee to be credited with political courage, even by those who didn't agree with his views. In contrast, Michael Dukakis was viewed as a schmuck who could have beaten Bush the Elder in 1988 if he'd tailored his campaign more closely to poll results and focus groups.

You can certainly make the case that Dukakis was an ill-advised choice for the Democrats that year, but they knew they were nominating someone who was against capital punishment and a mandatory Pledge of Allegiance. The party establishment's anger toward Dukakis for maintaining such unpopular views -- in the face of polls showing that Bush was sprinting ahead in the race -- is part of the reason that candidates in both parties are so cautious today.

Then again, it's difficult to be certain whether the two major parties are so cautious because they're evenly matched, or evenly matched because they're both so cautious. Either way, the country is split almost exactly down the middle, and we've been frozen this way since 1994, when the Republicans narrowly won control of Congress in what was apparently a backlash against President Bill Clinton. The closeness of both the presidential election and the vote for Congress this year may have the appearance of a fluke, but it's been a long time coming. (Some commentators have floated the idea that voters intended this outcome, as a way to keep both parties in check. Unless people are voting twice, so as to cancel out their own ballots, I don't see any evidence for this theory.)

Both sides are defensive about the idea that neither is clearly winning. As a progressive, I'm tempted to point out that the two left-of-center candidates (Gore and Nader) in this election received more votes than the three right-of-center candidates (Bush, Buchanan, and Libertarian Harry Browne). In fact, the combined 51 percent for Gore and Nader was the highest percentage of votes cast for left-of-center parties since 1964. But my suspicion is that if the three percent of the vote cast for Nader had gone to Gore, the Bush campaign would have detected as much in its polls and would have compensated for it accordingly. Perhaps Bush would have given a major speech on protecting the Florida Everglades. I also suspect that if Buchanan, rather than Nader, had been getting three percent in the polls, the two major campaigns would have built that into their calculations, and we might still have a deadlock in the popular vote.

The spin doctors say otherwise. On Don Imus's radio show last weekend, Republican commentator Mary Matalin objected to the characterization of the United States as "split down the middle" politically. She pointed out that Bush had apparently won 32 of the 50 states, neglecting to add that Gore won six of the 10 largest states (or seven, if you give him Florida). Imus seemed to back her up, referring to a USA Today map showing that Bush won counties totaling 2.4 million square miles, whereas Gore won counties covering only half a million square miles. The upper floors of apartment complexes are obviously not included in these figures; if we're going to reform the election system, the Republicans might want to suggest the principle of "one building, one vote." I'd say that the GOP's contempt for large cities -- presumably following the lead of Republican-leaning voters in focus groups -- only underscores the idea that the country is indeed split. (The flip side of Matalin's argument came on HBO's Chris Rock Show, where comic actress Wanda Sykes pointed to all the Bush states in the middle of the country and said, "Ain't nobody live there! Just rocks and coyotes!")

Because both parties are sensitive to the fact that they have no mandate for anything, they tend to fight most ferociously over matters of procedure. There was the squabbling over debate formats earlier this fall, which was nothing compared to the tension over how to count ballots in Florida. Interestingly, I haven't seen a prominent official from either party propose meaningful reforms to make sure the Florida disaster doesn't happen again.

It's as if both parties are doing research to see whether they can take advantage of this chaos in future elections. If the loser of this election is magnanimous enough to concede, the winner should be decent enough to fix the tangled mess of laws that got him elected. How about starting with a uniform ballot for the entire country, just as we distribute the same federal tax forms to everyone? Suddenly it seems more than a little odd that the Federal Election Commission strictly regulates the financing of presidential and congressional campaigns, but has no jurisdiction over the actual voting process.

The broadcast media haven't been much help in sorting things out, probably out of fear that they'll alienate viewers on either side of the debate. Last weekend, the cable news networks were careful to give equal weight to the Bush campaign's claim that machine counts of punch-hole ballots are more accurate than hand counts, despite the near-universal opinion among election experts that the reverse is true. The way things are going, I expect to see a CNN documentary on the space program in which equal time is given to experts who say the moon landing was a hoax. (I almost feel sorry for former secretary of state Jim Baker, who made the case against hand-counting last weekend. After a lifetime of public service, during which he presumably worked to introduce democratic values to less civilized nations, he can't be delighted that the first paragraph of his obituary is going to describe him as a Bush family retainer who asked the federal government to snatch ballots away from local officials trying to get an accurate vote count in a presidential election.)

Eventually, a new president will be sworn in, but the partisan divide will be deeper than ever, and the new guy in the White House -- let's call him President Asterisk, after the mark that will appear next to his name in every almanac for the next few centuries -- will have to make a choice in planning his re-election campaign. If recent history is any guide, he'll focus on the people who voted in the 2000 election. Using polling data, he'll try to use buzz phrases and narrow legislative proposals to win over just enough voters for an unblemished victory in 2004. The opposition will work to win over the same narrow band of swing voters. The next election may not be as close, but it will be just as dispiriting.

The other option is for President Asterisk to seek a clear mandate by shaking up the political system. Given the polarized electorate of 2000, the best way to do this is to appeal to new voters. The Democrats seem better able to accomplish this, given that they run strongly among groups with lower voter turnout (the poor, minorities, urban voters), and the New York Times exit poll showed that Gore ran nine points ahead of Bush among people voting for the first time this year. (See? Polls are so pervasive I can't resist citing one to boost the argument that we should ignore them.) It's harder to imagine the Republicans as the forward-looking party, especially after they spent all their energies on a Bush Restoration, but it's not out of the question. A McCain-type agenda that includes campaign-finance reform and a fight against pork-barrel spending of all kinds (including military spending and farm subsidies) might have great appeal among younger voters.

In the meantime, voters can do their part by working together to sabotage the public-opinion process. It's flattering to be asked your opinion, but do you really want everything decided this way? In one of the most infamous questions in polling history, Americans were once asked whether they thought President Ronald Reagan would be diagnosed with skin cancer. Do you want your doctor to poll the waiting room to determine whether you should be concerned about a rash on your rump? In my opinion, which I don't give to strangers on the phone, it's okay to state your view on clearly defined issues (abortion, gun control, etc.), but it's just silly to answer questions about how favorably you see a public figure on any given day, or whether you get a warm feeling from a new campaign slogan. All you're doing is limiting your options later on, when a president might decide to do nothing about global warming or military preparedness because the polls have shown that most people don't care about those issues.

One encouraging effect of the close presidential election is that it's sent people into the streets for enthusiastic but (so far) violence-free protest marches. Perhaps more voters will realize that politics is about more than measuring opinions. The numbers don't lie, but we can make sure they don't tell the whole story.

Robert David Sullivan can be reached at