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Jewish World Review June 30, 2000 / 27 Sivan, 5760

Roger Simon

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When AlGore will know it's all over -- "MY INSTINCT is people don't know what to think about this thing. There has been amazing volatility in these polls. My best judgment is people are still trying to figure out what they're going to do. It is still more likely than not that (Al Gore) is going to win."

That was President Clinton speaking Wednesday at his first solo press conference in three months. He was trying to help his vice president, who certainly needs helping right now.

Every time Gore seems to catch a break -- a recent Newsweek poll showed him only two points behind George W. Bush -- more bad news descends: A federal prosecutor suggests an independent counsel investigate his 1996 fund raising and another poll shows him 13 points behind.

As I have written before, the Gore staff always knew he would be behind in the polls during the summer and they knew the gap would reach double digits.

Their plan has always been, in the words of one senior adviser, to re-introduce Gore to the American people at a dynamic Democratic Convention in mid-August and leave the convention "even, ahead or within the margin of error" in the polls at the end of that convention.

Why is that important?

First, it's because the candidate who leads in June does not necessarily win in November.

As the Gallup Organization puts it: "Among the 12 presidential elections held from 1952 through 1996, in four of them -- 1968, 1980, 1988, and 1992 -- the candidate who eventually won the election was running behind in the polls during June of the election year.

"In June 1992, Bill Clinton trailed President George Bush, at a time when Reform Party candidate Ross Perot was still a serious contender in the race. "In June 1988, Vice President George Bush trailed Michael Dukakis by 9 percentage points, but eventually won the election by 7 points.

"In June 1980, Ronald Reagan trailed incumbent President Jimmy Carter by 2 points then went on to win the election by 10 points.

"In June 1968 Richard Nixon lagged 5 points behind Hubert Humphrey, then won the election by just under 1 percentage point."

The polling done on Labor Day, however, is a much better predictor. It's not magic, it just means that by Labor Day, about two months away from Election Day, many more people have made up their minds.

Only one person who was not leading on Labor Day has become president since 1952: Ronald Reagan in 1980.

So Al Gore very, very much needs to be close by Labor Day. Not because polls are destiny, but because the media will cast Gore as a hopeless underdog if he does not close the gap by early September.

Can he do it? I have no idea. But already the polls are making things difficult for him.

Both Gore and Bush are accepting public funds for the general election, so technically speaking they will both be spending exactly the same amount of money.

But not really. The Republican and Democratic parties get to spend "soft money" in virtually limitless amounts. But to spend "soft money" you must match part of it with "hard money," and that means both Gore and Bush will have to spend part of their time raising money this fall.

And bad poll results make it hard to raise money.

Everybody wants to give to a winner, and when you are up in the polls by double digits the money rolls in.

When you are down by that much, it is much harder to get people to contribute money. Few people want to spend money on a loser. So Al Gore has to shake that image -- fast.

"There will be three key events," a senior Gore aide told me a few days ago. "There is the selection of a running mate, the convention and the debates. People pay attention to those things and those things will move us up in the polls. How close do we have to be? We have to be where people think we can win it."

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate