October 20, 2000

The Empty Center of Campaign 2000

By Andrew Kohut, Director
Special to The New York Times

If you are expecting to soon find out what the election will turn on now that the debates are over, you’re going to be disappointed. In fact, you may be puzzled about the whys of the outcome even after we know the winner of campaign 2000.

This is a very different kind of election. Not only is it a close race, but it’s one of the few elections in which the lead has gone back and forth. The presidential contests in 1960, 1968 and 1976 were all tight in the end, but they were not seesaw races. There were changes in the leader over the course of the 1980 campaign, but ultimately this was not a close election, and the message voters were sending was clear.

Campaign 2000 is a difficult one for voters because this election is not about anything very much, even though we want it to be about something. Consider what the voters face. There are no overarching issues. Yes, people are concerned with health care, education, Social Security, Medicare and other issues, but they feel far less urgency than in past elections, when big foreign threats loomed or the economy was less robust. And the failure of health-care reform in 1994 and the Gingrich revolution in 1995 have soured the public’s appetite for big changes from Washington.

Voters generally judge this year’s candidates favorably — in fact, they give the field a better rating than they did in 1992 and 1996. But there is not a lot of strong feeling one way or the other about Al Gore versus George W. Bush. Neither man has been more able than the other to make a compelling case for his candidacy. Add to this the fact that the central question of most elections is not being raised. Voters are not being offered a referendum on the administration in power; that question is being sidestepped by both camps. President Clinton’s name was hardly mentioned in the third presidential debate.

No wonder as many as one in four voters still might change their minds, and many could sit out the election altogether. Ordinary Americans have nothing to hold onto this year unless they are partisan or ideological. That is why all of the groups without strong political leanings have been, and continue to be, on the fence. Independents, middle-income voters, suburbanites, white Catholics and other swing groups have been evenly divided or just leaning one way or the other since the end of the primaries last spring.

The swing groups are likely to have a variety of reasons for coming to their final decisions. Some strongly favor Mr. Gore on health care and other high-anxiety issues, but have trouble with his personality. Others think Mr. Bush
might provide a refreshing change in tone in Washington, but worry about his qualifications and some of his positions on issues.

While the choices that different groups of swing voters make won’t be based on whim, they might be highly idiosyncratic and may not provide the tight thematic narrative that analysts look for. That probably won’t slow down the pundits. These days the meanings of elections are often overread, if not misread, in a rush to blather. (Think about the hard time today’s pundits might have had in 1960: Was Kennedy’s win about Quemoy and Matsu or the missile gap — or was the election a personal showdown between Kennedy’s style and Nixon’s downbeat persona?)

There is a striking disconnect here. With Supreme Court nominations on the line, and control of Congress as well as the White House up for grabs, voters could be remaking Washington this Election Day. But if that happens, they will have ambled in the new direction, rather than striding there purposefully.