Gore slippage may matter

June 26, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The news in the polling dodge this week is that Gov. George W. Bush has widened his lead over Vice President Al Gore. In the latest survey made for the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, it is Bush 49 percent to Mr. Gore's 41.

Two months ago, Bush's lead was only five points. The month before that, in March, Mr. Gore was ahead 43-40, meaning that the race was essentially even.

No one is very surprised about these figures. And the Democrats are busy reassuring one another with reminders -- valid reminders -- that few voters are paying close attention now and that the figures are likely to change radically when the campaign becomes more serious.

There are, nonetheless, some indicators in the polling figures that should cause at least a little uneasiness in the Gore campaign.

First, the pattern has been so consistently in favor of the presumptive Republican nominee. Mr. Bush has now led Mr. Gore in 31 consecutive Gallup Poll trial heats, including 13 this year. Given that the vice president is so well known, this suggests he is bumping his head against some ceiling beyond which his support cannot rise.

Second, the pattern by states seems threatening, or at least potentially so. Political analysts doing electoral vote estimates are finding some intriguing situations. In Minnesota, for example, a new poll shows the contest essentially even, Mr. Gore 42 and Mr. Bush 40, within the margin of error. But Minnesota has been reliably Democratic in six straight presidential elections. If Mr. Gore is going to have to fight for it, then he can count few states as part of his base.

California sends a different kind of message. Mr. Gore is leading Mr. Bush by 10 or 11 percentage points, a comfortable margin. But given the recent voting history in California and given the low regard in which the Republican Party is held there, the Texas governor has reason to be at least encouraged to be within 10 points.

The findings in the Northeast also raise some questions, particularly when Mr. Gore's situation is compared to the performance of candidate Bill Clinton in 1992 and President Clinton in 1996. He swept New England and the Middle Atlantic states by recapturing the "Reagan Democrats" and by scoring heavily among independents and moderate Republicans in the suburbs who were driven away by the Republican emphasis on "family values" as defined by Dan Quayle and Newt Gingrich.

Mr. Gore's lead in New York is at least 10 to 15 points and seems safe. But a new survey finds Connecticut dead even, which suggests suburban voters may be returning to long-established patterns. And political professionals consider both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, critical swing states, as very much in play.

Not all of the polling data is discouraging for the Gore campaign, however.

The surveys are showing that Patrick J. Buchanan, the far-out conservative seeking the Reform Party line, is drawing almost all his support from voters who otherwise would be casting Republican ballots. At the same time, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader is drawing more votes away from Mr. Gore than from Mr. Bush, but not in the same proportions.

With these extra candidates in the trial heats of the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, it came out Mr. Bush 43, Mr. Gore 38, Mr. Nader 7 and Mr. Buchanan 4.

It is also true that Mr. Bush's numbers are being inflated a point or two because he holds such runaway support in his home state. Texas makes up a significant chunk of any sample. But big margins on your home ground don't provide any extra electoral votes.

The strategists in both campaigns recognize, of course, that the polls being made today are based on sand that can be washed away with a single wave of opinion. Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush both have the potential to make the kind of breakthrough or the kind of gaffe that would change the political dynamics overnight.

But as flimsy as it may be, the data cannot be ignored by either side. At the least, the figures define the performances of the two candidates in the post-primary period. Mr. Bush has been doing well, Mr. Gore has not. If the situation were frozen, we would be looking at a Republican in the White House.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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