So who will decide the race to the White House in the election of 2000?
Keep your eyes on voters who didn't graduate from college, whose incomes put them in the middle of the middle class, who are socially moderate to conservative but lean toward the Democrats in congressional elections.
That's what the polls tell you and they also suggest watching the Latino vote closely. Latinos are strongly Democratic but are showing a real fondness for Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
The terrain for next year's battles is confusing because the electorate has spent most of this year sending contradictory signals. On the one hand, voters seem to be in a Democratic mood, preferring Democrats to Republicans for the coming elections for Congress and putting what have, in the past, been Democratic issues--health care, education, Social Security--at the top of their list of concerns.
Yet, in the presidential contest, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican front-runner, has held a steady (though recently diminishing) lead over both Democratic candidates, Vice President Al Gore and former senator Bill Bradley. The Washington Post poll in early November found the Democrats leading the Republicans by eight percentage points in contests for the House. But Bush enjoyed a nine-point lead over Gore and an eight-point lead over Bradley.
Gore and Bradley need to win over the Democrats and Independents who are voting for congressional Democrats but not for them. Republicans in Congress need more of the Bush vote than they're now getting.
But who are these swinging ticket splitters? To find out, I looked at Post polls and asked Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, to break out the ticket splitters from his elaborate national surveys. The voters who swing against Gore are not quite the same as the ones who swing against Bradley. Gore has more problems with white men, Bradley with white women. Both Democrats have problems in the South, but Bradley's are more severe. The former New York Knick is much stronger than Gore in the Northeast.
Bradley seems especially strong among college educated voters between the ages of 45 and 60, especially men.
The Bush Democrats are a moderate lot. They tend toward cultural conservatism, include a fair share of union voters and are susceptible to appeals on core Democratic issues such as health care and Social Security. The mix could keep them swinging back and forth all year.
And yes, Virginia, there is Clinton fatigue, but it's not Gore's only problem. Among Democrats and Independents, according to the Pew numbers, just under half who oppose Gore say they have problems with his "personality" or "leadership abilities," while a little over a third object to his "ties to the Clinton administration." The Bush Democrats are much less hostile to Clinton than Republicans are, but quite a bit more so than Gore's core supporters. The upshot: "Gore's problems are of his own making, and of Clinton's as well," says Kohut.
The good news for Gore is that his numbers have been going up in the polls. Gore can probably make up lost ground fairly quickly with traditionally Democratic groups (African Americans and Democratic-leaning women) among whom he is "underperforming," according to Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.
Bradley has crossover appeal--in the Post poll, he runs eight points better than congressional Democrats among college-educated voters. He does very well among Independents. But he's weaker than Gore among traditional Democrats. Bradley's Adlai Stevenson-with-a-jump-shot image, helps explain his draw among well-educated middle-aged men.
Bush has a blessing and a problem and they're both the same thing: the big lead he's enjoyed in the polls all year. It's built, in part, on support from Democrats who probably won't stay with him. Many Democrats, said one Republican pollster, "are uncomfortable with Gore, but are eventually going to break for him."
Since one of Bush's strong suits has been his standing as the Republican best suited to win back the White House, he could suffer more than the average candidate from the inevitable polling blips downward--for example, a recent Quinnipiac College Poll in New Hampshire showing Sen. John McCain of Arizona considerably stronger than Bush against Gore.
If you want to know the moment when Bush is in real trouble, look for the first reports about the McCain Democrats.