The Washington Times

How close will the presidential election be? Everybody seems to say it’s going to be very close. Whether that is out of respect for the principal contenders or out of disdain for them, people seem to think that Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush are pretty evenly matched.

On the Republican side, one reason underlying this sentiment is its value as a hedge against overconfidence. Mr. Bush has led in nearly all polls so far, and there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that Mr. Gore has begun to close the gap. One recent survey, the bipartisan Voter.com Battleground poll, put Mr. Bush over 50 percent for the first time. The significance of this, if true, is that for Mr. Gore the election is no longer about pulling in undecided voters (who, the same poll indicates, have views on issues closer to Mr. Gore’s than Mr. Bush’s, but for some reason have not settled on Mr. Gore as their choice). Mr. Gore must change the minds of people who have already decided to vote for Mr. Bush, a tougher challenge.

But Republicans don’t wish to make the mistake of underestimating Mr. Gore. They realize that he is a formidable debater, and he has a track record as someone who hits opponents hard. The current Atlantic Monthly features an article by James Fallows on Mr. Gore’s instinct for the jugular, complete with what is possibly the meanest piece of political art so far this election season: Al Gore curling his lip to reveal a nasty canine fang. Republicans are also mindful of the fact that an early lead in the polls doesn’t necessarily predict success in November. The nightmare election in this regard is 1988, a near-perfect mirror image of the matchup this year, with the party roles reversed. Vice President George Bush long trailed Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Nor is that the only recent case in which the midsummer leader ended up a loser: In summer 1992, as Ross Perot was capturing the imagination of many Americans and the dimensions of President Bush’s troubles were not fully clear, Jay Leno cracked a joke on “The Tonight Show” about how Democrats, sick and tired of coming in second in presidential elections, this year had figured out how to come in third. Ronald Reagan likewise trailed Jimmy Carter throughout the race.

For Democrats, the expectation of a close race is mainly a nod to the fact of Mr. Bush’s lead in the polls. The truth is, however, that many Democrats are having a hard time figuring out why Mr. Gore isn’t ahead now. They think he should be leading, given the golden economy and peace abroad. They think he will win because of the peace and prosperity issues, and because they expect him to paint Mr. Bush as a lightweight tool of his party’s extremists, hence as a threat to that very peace and prosperity. They further think that Mr. Gore’s positions on the issues are more centrist than Mr. Bush’s, i.e., that Mr. Gore is closer to the American people in where he wants to lead.

In this view, Mr. Gore is a quasi-incumbent, and peace and prosperity always favor the incumbent. All the political science models point to a Gore victory – in fact, a huge Gore victory. Democrats say they expect only a close win because of their frustration with the Gore campaign itself. It hasn’t found the traction it should have, in their view. And the candidate himself hasn’t presented a clear image to voters, nor given them a sense of where he wants to take the country. It is not too late for Mr. Gore to do any of this, in their view. But they have kept pushing back the date. Many had hoped for signs of progress by now. Mr. Bush has done an effective job of mobilizing his base; the Democratic base, in the estimation of Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, still isn’t engaged.

But if this does turn out to be a close election, that will be exceptional, not typical for presidential politics. The only really close election in the past quarter century was the 1976 contest between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, which Mr. Carter won with 50.5 percent of the vote. After that, the next closest was Mr. Clinton’s victory over President Bush, a five-point margin. Mr. Bush himself won in 1988 by just under 8 percentage points, and Mr. Clinton got himself re-elected over Bob Dole last time by about 9 points. Ronald Reagan presided over two certified landslides.

And this time? In the end, saying “it’s going to be close” is probably mainly another way of saying, “I can’t guess what the outcome will be.” But in addition to the possibility of a close election, there are two others we should consider: That Al Gore will get out of his own way and start riding the ideal conditions in which he is lucky to find himself running, thereby blowing Mr. Bush away; or that Mr. Gore is unacceptable to the American electorate for other reasons, in which case Mr. Bush won this election long ago and is going to blow Mr. Gore away.

I can’t figure it out, either. But those two possibilities seem to have as good a claim as the default non-prediction that it’s going to be close.