Squeaker Or Blowout?

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As Campaign 2000 enters its final days, the country is transfixed by questions surrounding the election of the next president. Will this be the closest contest since Kennedy and Nixon? Will there be, for the fourth time in U.S. history, a candidate who leads in the popular vote and loses the presidency in the Electoral College? Will the third party candidate spoil the election for one candidate? Or, as in 1980 when pollsters labeled the race too close to call, will there be a decisive win for one candidate that the polls failed to detect in final weekend surveys?

There have been a dizzying number of poll results both nationally and at the state level over the past two months. In most national polls, Texas Gov. George W. Bush now leads in the popular vote, but Vice President Al Gore holds an advantage in many key states that may determine the Electoral College vote.

The leading pollsters are now talking in cautious, measured tones about what all the numbers mean. When considering margin of error intrinsic to any survey, they know that no clear winner can be projected in these final days. The numbers vary from day to day, from poll to poll, suggesting at the very least that America is deeply divided about which candidate should serve as president for the next four years.

At the same time, the 2000 campaign exhibits many similarities to the 1980 election, when, in the final days of the campaign, the electorate consisted of party loyalists with entrenched preferences and an election-determining group of undecided voters. In 1980, pollsters also labeled the race “to close to call.” In fact, Reagan beat Carter by 10 points in the popular vote.

In 1980, the citizen who proved “most likely to vote” was also most likely Republican, and the burning questions determining the results on Election Day 2000 will be the profile of voters who cast ballots on Tuesday, whether voter turnout is high or low and what issues motivated and mattered most to voters.

Another factor playing a significant role in the outcome of the 2000 presidential election is Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. In 1992, Reform Party candidate Ross Perot took 19 percent of the popular vote, but no Electoral College votes. Similarly, Nader, who is likely to only draw five percent of the vote nationally, will not secure any Electoral College votes. Nevertheless, Nader’s popularity in states like Washington and Oregon could be a decisive blow to Vice President Gore. Perot drew votes away from incumbent President Bush in 1992; Nader is pulling votes away from Vice President Gore.

Voters will cast their ballots for president after considering a range of issues important to them. The candidates have presented their positions on hot-button issues involving education, Medicare and the cost of prescription drugs, taxes, targeted tax breaks, Social Security, Supreme Court appointments, the environment, the military and national defense. Witcampaign spending reaching stratospheric levels at both national and state levels, there is also the issue of campaign finance reform, a concern that was at the heart of the popular, but short-lived campaign of Sen. John McCain.

On Election Day, voters will consider which candidate will address their needs and concerns and do a better job dealing with these complex issues. Regardless of the outcome, all Americans will wake on Wednesday morning and go about the routine of their lives. If the current polls are accurate, at least half will be disappointed with the results of the 2000 presidential election.

Maureen Michaels is president of Michaels Opinion Research, Inc., a public opinion research firm based in New York City. She provides research counsel to Fortune 1000 firms and leading foundations. Michaels has served as an election night exit poll analyst for CBS News since 1994.

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