| Face-off in the Rust Belt
Will Midwesterners vote for Bush's platform of change, or rally around the flag of Al Gore? It's anyone's guess, say the experts
By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs
25 October 00 | With less than two weeks to go in the presidential election, the battle for 270 electoral votes and a ticket to the White House is back to where it was when the campaign started on Labor Day - dead even.
Both candidates are slugging it out in the Rust-Belt states - Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio - where key constituencies are cross-pressured, said J. Merrill Shanks, a professor of political science and director of the Computer-Assisted Survey Methods Program at Berkeley. On the one hand, as conservative voters, they like a lot of what George Bush has to say; on the other hand, they also respond to Al Gore's populist message about the little guy versus the big guy.
When it's this close, voters tend to "rally around the flag" in favor of the incumbent party, said Henry Brady, a professor of political science and public policy director of Berkeley's Survey Research Center. And regardless of the wild card - the undecided voters - it doesn't appear that the current Middle East crisis will provide an election advantage to Gore or Bush.
Voters are split over whether the vice president or the Texas governor would better handle the recent explosion of violence that many fear will derail the Arab-Israeli peace process, according to a recent CNN/Time survey. And the stark reality, adds Brady, is that nothing much else is wrong with the country right now.
"People are enjoying a vibrant economy in a peaceful world," Brady said. "Those broad and underlying conditions of peace and prosperity are what matter in any election. We have a stellar economy and most Americans would say they're better off than they were four years ago. The ups and downs in the polls really aren't very meaningful because, historically, the incumbent has the upper edge when the country is at peace and the economy is robust."
Polls show the race has been remarkably stable since early September, Brady said. Bush was averaging about 2 percentage points over Gore hours before the third and final presidential election, but the predictions have changed with each new poll putting one or the other over the top.
And none of that will change much, Shanks said.
"At least 70 percent of Americans have already made up their minds on who they will vote for," he said. "The candidates are concentrating on key states now, such as Florida, Arizona and Wisconsin, and capitalizing on the issues that will play out in their favor among those voters."
In Arizona, with its large retirement community, it will be social security. The same holds true for Florida. "Interestingly, Gore's position on prescription drugs is swaying the vote there a little," Shanks said. Unions in industrialized Michigan, home to the automotive industry, and environmental issues may help Gore's chances. Wisconsin and Missouri are wild cards by all accounts.
In the final stretch of the campaign, the undecideds that will make the difference. And there be the dragons.
Bush has been doing for the last few weeks what Gore did for months: "tweaking" his campaign mechanics. Speak to big groups or small ones? Emphasize issues or character? Take the high road or blast away? Bush also seems to be searching for a response to what he calls Gore's "class warfare" message and what Gore calls standing up for "working families" against the "wealthy and the powerful," said Shanks.
No amount of tweaking has been that effective for Gore, though, said Raymond Wolfinger, a professor of political science who studies voters and elections, political parties and Congress. "The worst part about Gore is what you see," he said, referring to Gore's personal style. "It's going to come down to some key issues, though."
To jump ahead of Bush, Gore needs to appeal to more women, added Laura Stoker, an associate professor of political science, who studies public opinion and voter trends. "Women, just like blacks, are more likely to be Democratic. They are more supportive of spending for social services, education and aid to the poor, and less supportive of big military budgets. But the idea of appealing to the women's vote is not what you would typically expect it to be this year, because women tend to be less engaged."
The Hispanic vote is more of a question mark, added political scientist Jack Citrin, who studies public opinion, voter behavior and ethnic politics. "Hispanics voted two-to-one democratic in the last election, but Bush has made a strong effort and has attracted more of the Hispanic population," Citrin said. "In Texas, he has openly courted them."
And in states such as Pennsylvania, where more than 90,000 people joined unions last year, second only to California, labor is flexing its muscles in an attempt to help Gore garner the Electoral College votes he needs to win. As it stands, Bush is currently ahead in 23 states with 205 Electoral College votes, while Gore is leading in 16 states worth 203 electoral votes.
"Still, all of the polls are showing that this is going to be a very close election," Citrin said. "A swing of 4 to 5 percent among undecided voters could make the difference."
Behind the Headlines is an occasional Berkeleyan feature in which campus experts examine issues in the news. To suggest a story idea, contact the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org. berkeley.edu or 643-8012.
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