The Washington Times

If Al Gore wins today, we will have an interesting case of all the polls prior to the election pointing in the wrong direction. Such a thing is possible, and perhaps more so this year than previously. But the main reason people are entertaining the possibility this year is that what one might call “objective conditions” seem to favor Mr. Gore strongly, and his inability to capitalize on them is correspondingly hard to fathom. Maybe the polls are missing something.

Here goes. The problem is this: Nobody really knows who’s going to vote today. Yet most pollsters are presenting their results for “likely voters.” How do they determine who is likely to vote?

Pollsters are all measuring the same electorate, and apart from the fluctuations associated with the margin of error, the results from pollster to pollster this year have tended to move together. Thus we can probably say with some confidence that George W. Bush emerged strongly from his convention, but that Mr. Gore was stronger in the weeks following his own convention, and that Mr. Bush’s strength (or, perhaps, Mr. Gore’s weakness) emerged starting with the debates. And here we are, with no discernible movement in the polls showing up in the final days.

But how much is Mr. Bush ahead? Two points, three points, five points, six points? The discrepancy is the screen for “likely voters” applied to the raw information. Do we assume Republicans and Democrats turn out in equal numbers? Give Democrats a two-point edge? There are reasons to support each weighting, and there are other possibilities as well. But there is no generally accepted, validated model out there. So: It’s possible the polls are consistently pointing the wrong way because they are consistently underweighting Democratic turnout.

And yet, in the absence of a fancy theory, Mr. Gore appears to be losing. If that’s true, then a substantial amount of received wisdom about how presidential contests get decided goes down with him. Forget about economic determinism. It’s time for some other explanation.

Perhaps something along these lines: The better campaigner wins. Or: A Democrat must be unambiguously centrist to win given a center-right electorate. Mr. Gore has been a truly unattractive candidate, and while he has assumed that he possessed President Clinton’s “New Democrat” policy mantle, with Mr. Gore’s interlarded populist rhetoric on the stump, he can hardly be said to have delivered a consistently centrist message.

Then, of course, there is the Bill Clinton of scandal. Hypothetically, would Mr. Gore have accepted current conditions of 1 percent economic growth, 8 percent unemployment, 5 percent inflation and a $100 billion budget deficit in exchange for a scandal-free Clinton legacy? My guess is yes, since the Gore campaign and the candidate himself seem to have examined their Clinton problem in so much detail and from so many angles as to have become transfixed by it. A negative association between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore may have been of greater concern to the Gore campaign than to American voters.

This has been a difficult election to get a fix on. Here’s what I think I know: The GOP base is fired-up. Republicans are united behind Mr. Bush. They not only don’t like Mr. Gore, they also think this election is a chance to vote against Mr. Clinton and beat him for a change. Democrats are slightly less united behind Mr. Gore. Ralph Nader’s Green Party is more an illustration of Mr. Gore’s problem than a cause of it. Mr. Clinton managed to run as a centrist while keeping the left in line; Mr. Bush is keeping his right flank intact; Mr. Gore has not managed the trick with his left flank.

Prediction: Mr. Bush, 49 percent, Mr. Gore, 45 percent, Mr. Nader, 4 percent. Due to the lopsided distribution, Mr. Bush wins the electoral college with just under 300 votes.

As for the Senate, this was going to be a tougher year for Republicans than most people initially thought. It’s the six-year Senate term. Republicans lost the Senate in 1986, six years after a big win in 1980. This year is six years after the 1994 GOP takeover. It looks to me like the GOP loses two net.

One must, of course, speak up on the New York contest. OK, Hillary Clinton beats Rick Lazio. Mr. Lazio hasn’t really registered as a presence in his own right, turning the race into one between Hillary Superstar and Hillary Goat. Surprise of the night: Republican Bill McCollum wins in Florida.

The House: Republicans have played a tough hand very well. There are really no more than 30-40 seats in play at all this year. (Thanks to reapportionment and redistricting, as well as midterm volatility, there may be 100 in play in 2002.) Although the GOP has more open seats to defend, it has done well enough to put many of them beyond Democratic reach. If Mr. Gore really is winning this election, Democrats regain control, but it looks to me like Republicans hold on, losing two seats.

If a genie grants three wishes to Democrats, they want: Al Gore to win; Sen. Clinton; and Speaker Gephardt.

If the genie decides instead to give the Republicans the three wishes, they want: President Bush to win with 50 percent or more; Hillary Clinton to lose; and impeachment manager Rep. Jim Rogan of California to be re-elected (arguably the most vulnerable GOP incumbent, if Mr. Rogan wins, the GOP will be retaining control of the House).