Posted on March 15, 1999 in Washington Watch
A few weeks ago, my brother John (the political pollster) and I were in the Arab world. In almost every discussion we had with government or business leaders, we were asked our views on the 2000 presidential elections.
One prominent political leader asked John directly “who will win in 2000, Bush or Gore?”
John’s response was simple and direct. “If the election were held today, George W. Bush would win. “But,” he added, “the election is not today.”
Despite the fact that the election is more than one year and one half away, it is not too early to begin paying attention to this critical contest. The stakes are quite high and the competition is already intense.
Just this week, both Republican Governor George W. Bush of Texas and Republican Elizabeth Dole announced the formation of what are called “exploratory committees” for their expected 2000 candidacies. Exploratory committees are vehicles that allow individuals to raise money and hire staff and in general, “act like a candidate”, while not formerly and finally entering the race.
The entry of these two well-known Republican names makes the Republican list of candidates grow to ten. At this point there are only two Democrats running–Vice President Al Gore and former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley.
Among these 12 candidates, the current polling numbers, though early, are both revealing and interesting.
George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole are, far and away, the leading Republicans. At this point, they are the only two who register in double digits. Bush is in the 30 percent range. Mrs. Dole registers between 15-25 percent. None of the other eight Republicans gets over seven percent.
On the Democratic side, Vice president Gore scores around 50 percent with Bill Bradley his lone competitor getting about 15 percent support.
In match-ups between the leading Republicans and Vice President Gore, both Bush and Dole lead. Bush bests Gore by between 15 to 20 percent and Dole leads by around ten percent.
Here’s what I believe these early numbers are telling us:
Bush and Dole are leading Republicans by such a large margin because these are two of the most prominent and recognized names in American politics. In fact, either a Bush or a Dole has been on the presidential ballot since 1976.
The big question, of course, is: will Americans support this Bush and this Dole? At present they are not really known. In fact, a leading political analyst said recently, “If you ask an average voter what he or she knows about the biography or views of George W. Bush or Elizabeth Dole, they probably couldn’t give you more than two sentences.”
What voters do feel however, is that Bush and Dole are the preferred candidates of the establishment and they may be moderate enough to lead the Republican Party away from extremism.
Both Bush and Dole have won broad support from party leaders. Bush for example, has won endorsements from one-half of the nation’s Republican governors and dozens of the leading elected officials.
But all of this support has been won on perception, since neither Bush nor Dole has competed nationally nor have they presented issue papers on the controversial issues of the day.
Once they do and are tested, then we will see how real these numbers are. As of now, the high numbers represent a combination of name recognition and a yearning for the party to be more centrist.
Both Bush and Dole can be hurt by positions they take on controversial issues, revelations about their personal lives, or how they react to pressure in the midst of the campaign. Since their current support is, in fact, so hollow–it can be deflated rather quickly.
Â·Such high numbers, this early in the campaign may actually hurt George W. Bush. Too large a lead, early on, may create inflated expectations that are difficult to fulfill.
At present, George W. Bush will be the target for all of his opponents and he will be under rather significant pressure to maintain his leading role.
Â·Gore’s numbers are also quite troubling. For the sitting Vice President to receive only 50 percent support against virtually no Democratic opposition, means that he has not yet won the loyalty of the majority of his fellow Democrats.
For just about one-half of the Democrats to want Gore as their nominee means either that there is some unease about his role as party leader or that he has not yet emerged out from under Clinton’s shadow and established himself as a strong leader.
Â·The Republican/Democratic match-ups also spell problems for Al Gore. The fact that the Vice President is seen as losing to two individuals, neither of whom are well-known, means that Gore will have to work hard in the next year.
It is, of course, very possible that the Vice President can turn this situation around. Gore’s advisors are fond of pointing out that in 1987, then Vice President Bush was also losing by similar margins to the then leading Democrat Michael Dukakis and Gary Hart.
Bush, who like Gore, was not known for his charismatic style, emerged out from under the shadow of the charismatic Reagan, ran a strong campaign and won easily in 1988.
During the next few months all of the announced candidates will be engaged in a number of common pursuits. First and foremost, they will be raising money. It is estimated that to compete effectively a candidate will have to raise at least $20 million this year. Gore has already set a $55 million goal. On the Republican side billionaire Steve Forbes has indicated that he will spend as much of his own money as he must to win. This means that front-runners like George W. Bush will have to raise big money. And raise it quickly.
Next, the candidates will need to build organizations in Iowa and New Hampshire, the states where the first presidential contest will take place next February. Some candidates, like Lamar Alexander, the former Republican Governor of Tennessee, have long-standing effective organizations in these states. George W. Bush and Mrs. Dole must start from scratch.
Since Iowa and New Hampshire are the nation’s first contests, a candidacy can rise or fall on the outcome of these elections. If a campaign does not finish in at least the top three after Iowa and New Hampshire it will be difficult for that candidate to continue.
If Bush, does not do in Iowa or New Hampshire as well as his high poll standings it will be perceived as a weakness and a loss and may well hurt the perception of his candidacy as a winning candidacy.
The candidates will continue to work to line up endorsements from party leaders and to build up their campaign teams with advisors and professionals. The candidates will also develop positions on issue and seek to define themes for their campaigns.
Finally, all the candidates will seek to avoid any blunders or miscues that could create the sort of embarrassing press feeding frenzy that could doom their campaigns. In the past, many great candidates were destroyed by such blunders.
So much will happen in the next year. Some candidates may emerge, only to be destroyed by a mistake or press scrutiny. Some new forces may yet appear. It is even possible that a third or fourth party will run–especially if a moderate Republican wins that party’s primary and angers its Christian right wing.
It is, in the end, too difficult to predict the outcome of this election still in its infancy. At this point, therefore, my brother John’s answer to the question “who will win in 2000?” is the best one. “If the election were held today, George W. Bush would win. But the election is not today.”
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