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Major Turning Points in 2000 Election: Primary Season, Party Conventions, and Debates

Major Turning Points in 2000 Election: Primary Season, Party Conventions, and Debates

Tightening of race before election day could signify new turning point -- but probably not

by David W. Moore


PRINCETON, NJ -- A review of CNN/USA Today/Gallup polling conducted throughout this election year suggests three major turning points in the election -- the primary season, when George W. Bush's double-digit lead over Al Gore, persisting for over a year, was cut in half; the party conventions, when Al Gore emerged as highly competitive with Bush; and the presidential debates, when the Texas governor moved back into the lead -- even if only by a few percentage points. It could be that a fourth and final turning point is now under way, as the Gallup poll has tightened, indicating a very close finish. Or it could be that the last two days of the campaign are just an extension of the past three weeks, with Bush maintaining -- and thus winning by -- a small advantage over Gore. The final Gallup projection is for Bush to win 48% of the vote, Gore 46%, Nader 4%, Buchanan 1% and others 1%. However, given the 2-point margin of error, it is possible that Gore could emerge the popular vote winner, although the final Gallup poll suggests that Bush is the more likely winner.

First Turning Point -- Aftermath of the Primaries
Bush first emerged as a serious presidential contender after his landslide re-election as Texas governor in November, 1998. In February, 1999, shortly after President Clinton was acquitted by the Senate in his impeachment trial, Bush led Gore in a hypothetical match-up by 54% to 43% -- a double digit lead Bush enjoyed for virtually all of 1999. His average lead that year was 15 points, ranging from a low of 9 to a high of 17 points.

The first indication of Bush's vulnerability came shortly after the new year, when Arizona Senator John McCain emerged as serious challenger for the Republican nomination. Initially in 2000, Bush maintained his electoral dominance over Gore, but the first general election poll after the New Hampshire Primary (which Bush lost to McCain by 18 percentage points) showed Bush's lead over Gore at 9 percentage points. Ten days later it was down to five percentage points, and over the next several months, through the middle of July, Bush's lead averaged just over six percentage points, significantly below the 15-point margin he had enjoyed the previous year.

Second Turning Point -- the Party Conventions
The second major turning point in the campaign occurred during the Republican and Democratic Conventions. Going into his own convention, Bush gained support as the news media gave positive coverage to the upcoming activities and to the choice of Richard Cheney as the vice presidential candidate. Just before the GOP Convention began, Bush was leading Gore by 11 points, and just after the GOP Convention, he enjoyed a 17-point lead. Bush's lead the next week, right before the Democratic Convention, was virtually the same at 16 points, but a week later -- after the Democratic Convention was over -- the race was a dead heat, with Gore enjoying a one-point lead in the poll. These convention "bounces" are typical of most presidential campaigns, as the intense media attention first on one, then on the other, party is accompanied by positive voter reactions to the party that is in the limelight. Usually, however, the advantage such a convention "bounce" brings to a candidate's campaign quickly fades, once media attention shifts its focus. However, following the Democratic convention, Gore maintained his competitive stance with Bush, and as Labor Day came and went, it became clear -- this was a new presidential race.

Over the next two weeks, Gore moved into a small lead that averaged about six percentage points, but during the Olympics that followed -- when the news media virtually ignored the presidential race -- Gore's lead disappeared and the two candidates were essentially tied once again. Going into the debates, it appears as though Gore may have regained a modest lead, as much of the political commentary focused on Bush's lack of experience and on expectations that Gore would be the better debater.

Third Turning Point -- the Presidential Debates
The third turning point was the debates themselves. While Gore was perceived as the "winner" in the first and third debates by those who viewed the debates live, the net effect of all three debates was that Bush moved into the lead for the first time since the GOP convention. He has maintained a small lead for the past three weeks, although the discrete three-day averages for the last several days show a gradual gain by Gore -- from a 48% to 42% Bush advantage October 31-November 2, to the final 48% to 46% Bush lead that was measured over the last two days of the campaign. Essentially, Gore has picked up support while Bush's support has remained constant.

Fourth Turning Point?
Support for presidential candidates can often undergo last minute surges, even up to Election Day itself. As indicated above, the Gallup poll has shown a tightening of the race, from a 6-point to a 2-point lead over the past several days. Still, given the margin of error of the poll, it is unclear if this apparent tightening of the race will become a fourth turning point -- with Gore emerging as the winner on election day -- or if it is merely a slight fluctuation that will still give Bush an edge that he has enjoyed since the presidential debates. There is so little difference in support for the two major candidates in the final poll that the presidential race is just too close to call.

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