June 16, 2000

Is Gore Like Bush…or is Bush Like Kennedy?

Political analysts looking for historical parallels can’t decide whether the 2000 presidential race looks more like a rerun of 1988 or 1960.

Will Vice President Al Gore take a page from Vice President George Bush’s play book, when he overcame a big deficit in the early polls and soundly defeated Michael Dukakis? At a comparable stage in the 1988 campaign, the energetic Massachusetts governor held a 16-point lead over Bush Sr., who did not have the personal magnetism of his boss, Ronald Reagan. But the historical analogies cut both ways: Can George W. Bush Jr. upend a sitting vice-president, a la John F. Kennedy’s defeat of Richard Nixon, who was ultimately unable to come out from under Dwight Eisenhower’s shadow?

Neither comparison is perfect, but each has some relevance to the current campaign. First, Gore’s personal image problems are reminiscent of Bush’s in 1988. Then, Bush was the object of much ridicule — he was said to be out of the loop and struggling against the “wimp factor.” Today, Gore is derided as hopelessly stiff and a shameless panderer. A May 1988 Gallup poll gave Vice President Bush a tepid personal favorable rating of 51%, against 42% who viewed him unfavorably. However, Gore’s favorable rating in a Pew national survey last month was a comparable (50%-38%).

The good news for Gore is that Bush showed that voters can change their minds about a candidate. By October, Bush’s personal ratings had risen to 58% and views of his once-vaunted challenger had slipped mightily. Dukakis’ favorable evaluation fell from a lofty 66% in May, when he was the new kid in town who seemingly could do no wrong, to 48% when he was a discredited candidate who could do very little right.

The other striking similarity between the two elections is the divided attitudes of Americans toward Presidents Clinton and Reagan. In May 1988 voters were still angry with Reagan over Iran-Contra and gave him a mixed job rating — with 48% approving and 43% disapproving. But more people liked him personally (56%) than thought well of his performance. With Clinton, it is just the reverse: 57% approve of the way he is doing his job, but only 48% give him a favorable personal rating. (See Chart)

This is bad news for Gore. Reagan’s job approval ratings began to rebound from Iran-Contra in the fall as a well-publicized summer summit meeting with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev pointed to a further easing of Cold War tensions. It seems unlikely that Clinton’s personal ratings will improve much by Election Day and thus it is unclear how much he can help Gore. The scandal may recede from the public’s memory, but there’s no one that the President can take to lunch to improve people’s personal assessments of him which have hurt Vice President Gore.

The Kennedy-Nixon contest was waged in a different, less cynical era. Both presidential candidates were well regarded by seven-in-ten voters and Ike had a 65% approval rating. But then, as now, voters were having a hard time making a choice, in spite of generally good conditions. While 1960 was not as much a boom year as 2000, surveys at the time by the University of Michigan found Americans expressing satisfaction with their finances. The 1958 recession, which had taken its toll on the fortunes of the GOP in the midterm elections two years earlier, had faded. And more generally, people were content with the course of the country and optimistic about the future, according to one of the first surveys of the state of the nation conducted by Princeton social psychologist Hadley Cantril. Yet there was no clear Nixon incumbency advantage over Kennedy. A survey by Gallup in June 1960 had Kennedy ahead of Nixon by an insignificant 50%-46% margin. A month earlier, Gallup had found an almost equally small Nixon edge, 49%- 47%. So it was for the rest of the campaign with the lead changing hands, but never moving outside of the margin of error.

Similarly, today the polls continue to provide a mixed outlook for November. The latest national surveys show either a small Bush lead or a dead heat, making the race more similar to 1960 than 1988. However, there is one prominent feature in the political landscape that was absent 40 years ago. The Democratic party was still clearly the majority party in 1960, which helped enable Kennedy to capture the popular vote even though Nixon carried the Republicans and independents. Today, neither party has a clear numerical edge when lack of party loyalty is factored in. The votes of independents will therefore be decisive and these swing voters are far less predictable than the reliably partisan voters of elections long past.