Figuring out who is going to win the election
A political scientist's take on the 2000 presidential campaign

By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs

06 SEPTEMBER 00 | There is more method to the apparent madness of a presidential campaign than one might gather from the news, professor and pundit Nelson Polsby said in lecture at the Richard and Rhoda Goldman School of Public Policy August 29.

While the media typically portray presidential elections as "whimsical, strange and weird," he said, political science tells us, for example, that "you can't win a debate, but you can lose one," "a vice presidential selection can't help, but it can hurt," and "in good times, the incumbent wins."

The latter is one of seven reputable models for predicting election outcome, Polsby said. All seven refer, in some way, to the economy, and all seven say that Al Gore will win the 2000 presidential election.

Political lore portrays the Democratic and Republican parties as "two symmetrical parties positioned in different places on the political spectrum," Polsby noted. Data and analysis show, however, that the two parties are structured quite differently, which affects what they need to do to win an election.

"The Democratic Party," he said, "is built like a mosaic, and depends more on high (voter) turnout among relatively small groups," like blacks, Hispanics, Jews and union households.

To win the presidency, the Republican Party, in contrast, needs to win "better-than-usual support of great battalions" - such as whites, the employed, married people and suburbanites.

"The imperative for the Republicans to move to the middle is greater than for Democrats," Polsby said.

Voter turnout, the gender gap, opinion polls, running mates, candidate debates, campaign promises and the role of the media were also on the table.

Polsby observed that the news media tend to give too much credence to the "laundry list of proposals generated by the two camps."

But campaign promises and proposals, to become reality, "have to be ground through Congress," he noted, "and the composition of the next Congress is unkonwn."

Debates aren't much better for revealing how a candidate would behave in office, according to Polsby.

For political junkies, he said, the negotiations and dodging over whether, when and how to debate "gives more interesting information than the debates themselves."

"Frontrunners don't want to debate. Anyone with the last name 'Bush' doesn't want to debate," he said, noting George Bush's failure to show up for a debate organized by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

If you want to know how someone would behave in public office, Polsby said, "it's good to get an idea of the political interest groups that support the candidate," and even better to know his or her past record.

Goldman School lectures
The lecture was the first in a series of brown-bag talks on political strategizing in the fast-paced world of campaign politics. Visit the Richard and Rhoda Goldman School of Public Policy online calendar for a complete list of events.



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