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PHOTO FINISH

James Q. Wilson is emeritus professor of management and public policy at UCLA and the author of "Moral Judgment."

The great puzzle about this election is why Al Gore is not at least eight or 10 points ahead of George W. Bush in the polls. Political scientists long ago established that the pocketbook vote belonged to the party in the White House when the country was doing well economically.

In my textbook on American government, there is a chart showing how close the connection is between the vote for the incumbent party and the percentage increase in per-capita disposable income during the election year. President George Bush looked like a shoo-in for reelection in 1992 until the economy stalled, and then even his enviable record as the leader of Desert Storm did not help him defeat Bill Clinton. Bush’s son should be facing the same problem. With unparalleled prosperity and vanishingly small rates of unemployment and inflation, Gore should be doing as well as Lyndon B. Johnson did in 1964 or the elder Bush did in 1988. But Gore is, at best, even in the polls and trails in a few.

There are at least three possible explanations. One is that Gore has inherited some part of the hostility toward Clinton and his sexual scandals. That may be true for some voters, but it is hard to see what more Gore could have done to eliminate the link. He is, so far as we know, a loyal husband; he picked as his running mate a senator who took the lead in criticizing Clinton’s immorality; and he has not campaigned with Clinton at his side. That the taint argument may not be crucial is evident from the fact that the Bush camp has largely abandoned it.

A second explanation is that the race has evoked deep policy differences among voters. Bush seems to have succeeded in tapping into the moderate-to-conservative tendencies of most American voters. There is a tendency of both candidates to campaign for the centrist voter, and the centrist voter is more conservative than the media would like to admit. Roughly 70% of all voters call themselves moderate or conservative; only 20% describe themselves as liberal. But despite this, Gore has run a campaign designed to appeal to liberals, with frequent attacks on “the rich,” “big oil” and “big drug companies.” Perhaps this was done to get Gore’s liberal constituents to the polls, but if so, the argument may not help him when roughly half of all American families own stock, much of it invested in oil and drug companies. Gore is, in fact, much more liberal than Clinton, and that fact may not set well with swing voters.

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A third explanation is that the people this year assign more value to character than to the economy. Voters have told pollsters they think Gore is smart, well-informed and better equipped to help the country cope with education, health care, the environment and Social Security. But voters also tell pollsters they think Bush is more honest and straightforward than Gore and that he beats Gore in leadership, likability and personal standards. And Gore has a lamentable record when it comes to being accurate about his life.

In a TV interview, former Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) put it well: Voters, when they watch presidential debates, look into the eyes of the candidates and judge them as people. When I read the reports from focus groups, I am struck by how often they referred to personality and character more than policy and ideology.

Fine. But why do these views seem to trump the long-standing connection between the economy and the vote? Many of my political science colleagues have released predictions based to an important degree on economic conditions, and all, so far as I know, say that Gore will win. But if that is true, why is Gore not doing better in the polls?

Let me offer a theory, based largely on a hunch. The present prosperity has been going on for so long that voters take it for granted, and so they are inclined to let other things influence their preferences. When Ronald Reagan won in 1980, the economy was in trouble; when he was reelected by a handsome margin in 1984, we had just recovered from a slump that began when he and Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker wrung inflation out of the economy by allowing interest rates to shoot skyward. The voters in both cases reacted to short-run changes that were fresh in everyone’s minds. The economy turned bad in 1992, and Clinton won, but it was a qualified victory. Ross Perot got 19% of the vote, keeping Clinton well below even half the vote. Perot stood for something more important than the economy: the battle against high levels of public debt and continued budget deficits.

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But now we have a budget surplus (though for how long no one knows) as well as prosperity that has been going on for almost a decade. Accordingly, the stock market has boomed, even allowing for its recent setbacks. People may think that the country has been in such good shape for so long that the party in power did little to make it that way. Many Republicans, of course, would agree, pointing to the tax cuts and business deregulation that began in the early 1980s. If people assume that times are good and cannot remember an administration that may have made it possible, the Clinton-Gore administration may get little credit for the achievement.

If that is true, people may be more future-oriented than usual. The economic explanation of voting is backward-looking; people blame or credit the party in the White House for bad times or good ones, and if blame is to be had, they vote for the opposition party without thinking much about what it might promise to do. But if times have been good for so long that no one is thought to be responsible, then voters--at least those undecided ones in the middle--may think ahead to what each party’s candidate promises for the future.

If true, that would be unusual. Ordinarily, only the more ideologically minded voters react strongly to party messages, and that reaction is usually governed by their ideology: Liberals like a bigger, more active government, and conservatives prefer a less active one. But if ordinary--that is, non-ideological--voters are looking ahead and doing so without a clear ideological direction, then the race will be in doubt as they move back and forth and may depend on their assessment of each candidate’s character.

Whether this theory is any better than its rivals, I cannot say. But if it is correct, Gore could try to reawaken the voters’ interest in a good economy by making that the main theme of his talks. Yet, he doesn’t. He keeps talking about the future rather than the past. This may tell you something (good or bad) about his instincts.

There is one other factor: the unreliability of the polls. Thirty years ago, people responded to polls. Now, a majority slam down the phone when it rings during dinner time, treating pollsters the same way they treat fund-raisers and sellers of new credit cards. A lower response rate means pollsters do not know whether the people who actually answer their questions are as representative of the public as the original sample might have been had all of its members been willing to be interviewed. And of late, the polls have begun to shift from interviewing registered voters to questioning likely voters, who have different preferences.

Both these problems tend to understate the Republican vote, because Republicans are more likely both to slam down the phone when a pollster calls and to vote than are Democrats. This uncertainty means that the true standing of Bush and Gore in the polls may be even more unclear than we now suspect. The only answer we can get will be revealed Tuesday night.


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