Power Of The Bored

For presidential candidates, the trick to winning the election is to win the ones in the middle.

March 14, 2004|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

IF YOU are reading this, you are probably not going to play an important role in deciding the identity of our next president.

That's not to say that you are not going to vote. As a reader of the analysis section of the Sunday paper, you are undoubtedly an engaged citizen who will exercise your civic franchise in November. But it is to say that your vote has already been safely tucked away. Since you vote regularly, your pattern is clear. Your candidate is counting on you, the other candidate has dismissed you.

Your kin in the United States are evenly divided between the two parties. So among the civic-minded voters, the presidential race is a toss-up. The trick to winning is to get the ones in the middle.

"The strange little irony is that the people who are most attentive to politics probably matter the least to the outcome," says James Gimpel, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Gimpel and other political scientists say that as President Bush and Sen. John Kerry embark on this lengthy campaign for the White House, they are going to spend most of it preaching to the converted. "That group in the middle will be formulating some impressions along the way, but what's really going to matter to them the most is what happens in the closing days, in the last three weeks to a month," Gimpel says.

Benjamin Ginsberg, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University, agrees. "The committed Democrats and Republicans are not going to change their minds. It is that large group in the middle who have not yet become engaged, and we don't know yet what events will engage them."

Ginsberg nominates the usual suspects - the economy, the situation in Iraq - as events that could end up grabbing these people's attention. "The great imponderable could be another terrorist attack. Depending on what happens and how the president responds, that could cut one way or another," he says.

But without such a defining moment, those in the middle could be swayed by something like Jay Leno's monologue.

So this is what most of this campaign will be about - millions of dollars and countless brain cells of political operatives expended trying to set the stage that the inattentive voters will see when they begin paying attention.

"I think it is a good question as to whether either campaign, but especially Bush, should be spending a lot of money right now," says Thomas Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has been active in Democratic politics. "But I think this campaign at this point is not directed at all at actual voters, it is directed in a very invidious way at the media. Bush is crafting the story line they are going to build.

"What he wants to do is focus on his steady leadership in an unstable time, and less on the instability of that time," he says. "Bush clearly wants to turn the race into a referendum on Kerry. ... What they are trying to do is turn this into Bush-Gore II."

Schaller says the Democrats should be running a similar set-the-stage campaign now. "I think the Kerry campaign should be waging its own framing battle as well, that this election is about the failed policies of a president who is in some sense running from his own record."

He says the idea is to repeat a message so many times that it gets accepted. "Through repetition people accepted that Gore claimed he invented the Internet, even though he never said that. ... You repeat this enough and at some point the media just gives up and starts swallowing the story lines."

This might reach that mass in the middle - certainly the Gore-Internet claims made it into comedy monologues - but Gimpel still says most of this money and effort is wasted. He argues that the traditional model of a candidate convincing voters of the righteousness of his cause is not operative because the only people paying attention to such arguments have made up their minds.

`Political attitudes'

"Persuasion is such an overrated strategic tool," he says. "The people paying the most attention are already sold on one candidate or another. The people really open to persuasion aren't tuned in."

Ginsberg says he has seen this in the classes he has taught for 12 years at Johns Hopkins and, before that, for two decades at Cornell.

"I ask students, `How many people in this room would be willing to go out on a date with a member of the opposite political party?'" he says. "Thirty years ago, they thought it was a silly question. ... Today I would say close to a majority of the kids in the hall would not go out with a member of the opposite party.

"This reflects a general hardening of political attitudes. Your party is a statement of who you are as a human being, your place in the social structure."

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