Battling for the Undecided

The deadlocked presidential race is one of the closest in U.S. history

Andrew Phillips November 6 2000

Battling for the Undecided

The deadlocked presidential race is one of the closest in U.S. history

Andrew Phillips November 6 2000
The Ladies Who Golf are sitting around the 19th hole and choosing up sides. Just outside the clubhouse at Big Cypress Golf & Country in Lakeland, Fla., the Maple Leaf snaps in the wind alongside the Stars and Stripes—a gesture to the Canadian members who flee their winters for the balmy breezes of central Florida. Inside, Emmy,

Marge, Rae and Barbara ponder their choices on Nov. 7. The verdict: two for Al Gore, one for George W Bush, and one who insists there’s no use in voting because “they all talk and they don’t act.”

Even for those who are willing to vote, however, the reasons behind their choices are telling. No one shows much enthusiasm for her candidate. Emmy Adams, 57, will go for Gore but mainly to stop Bush, who “will do exactly what his father did—and put the country in a worse position.” Marge O’Rourke, 74, also favors the vice-president, but mainly because she likes his running mate, Joseph Lieberman: “I’m voting Lieberman for president.” Sixty-year-old Rae Ashford will back Bush, even though “I’m not too sure of him—he sort of bumbles through things.” And Barbara Helman, who won’t vote, is more upset that at age 60 she’s had to go back to work as a cashier at Wal-Mart just to get health insurance. “It’s really too bad,” she says.

It’s been like that this political season in the United States. The experts are telling voters that this is a big election, and in many ways they’re right. Control of both the White House and Congress is at stake, with the Democrats hoping to regain a majority in the House of Representatives. So is the makeup of the Supreme Court: the next president will appoint at least two members, affecting the ideological balance of the court for many years to come. The presidential race is the closest since 1960, when John Kennedy edged out Richard Nixon by less than half of one per cent of the vote.

And beyond all the froth about Gore’s troubles with telling the truth and Bush’s struggles with the English language (the liar versus the lamebrain, in one formulation), they offer a clear choice at a time when the fundamental issue is how to use the windfall produced by eight years of unparalleled prosperity. With government coffers filling up with surplus cash, should Washington strengthen the social safety net and pay down debt, as Democrat Gore argues? Or should it expand competition into bedrock social programs like Social Security and make deep tax cuts, as Republican Bush proposes?

A distinct choice and a close race—nowhere closer than in Florida, a state that was supposed to have been an easy win for Bush, but where he found himself campaigning hard for a day and a half last week. It’s a combination that, one might think, should excite voters, especially in an area that really counts in the final days of a seemingly endless campaign.

Lakeland lies along the “1-4 corridor,” named for the highway that runs from Tampa through Orlando to Daytona Beach—the key area for winning Florida, which in turn is the biggest of the so-called swing states that will decide the election. Gore is strong down south, especially among seniors who migrated to the sun from the northeast; Bush controls the northern, conservative part of the state. Along the 1-4 live the independent voters—a mix of young and old, urban and rural who are being courted by both sides.

It’s a tough fight. Bush’s advisers concede that he absolutely must have the state’s 25 electoral votes to win the White House—and once thought he had a lock on it with the help of his younger brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. So the candidates have lavished time and money on the state: you can hardly turn on the TV without hearing a political ad. Yet the ladies at Cypress Hills seem typical of many American voters—lukewarm about their options, detached from the process. “It’s like a stage show they put on for us,” says Adams. “You make a choice, but you don’t have to like it a whole lot.”

Why the lack of enthusiasm? Partly because of the candidates. Polls show that voters see Gore as overbearing, didactic and liable to say anything for political advantage. They fear that Bush, with just six years as governor of Texas behind him, isn’t prepared to be president and doesn’t have the experience needed to deal with the dangers lurking in the rest of the world. Partly it’s because of the times. Eight years of prosperity (despite recent gyrations in the stock markets) and relative peace (despite the ructions in the Middle East) have made government seem less important to ordinary people.

But it’s also because of the nature of the fight. Presidential contests start out as grand national campaigns, but by the final 10 days the candidates are fighting state by state to win the 270 votes needed for a majority in the electoral college (the winner of the popular vote in each state wins all that state’s electoral votes, which equals the number of its seats in Congress). Most states are firmly in one camp or the other, so Gore and Bush are struggling over a dozen or so swing states—including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, Tennessee and Florida.

There’s another late-campaign wild card: Green party candidate Ralph Nader. Nader has forced Gore to fight for Oregon and Washington state, where his appeal to left-leaning and younger voters could take enough votes from the vice-president to tip the outcome to Bush. Some liberal groups are so alarmed that they launched ad campaigns last week aimed at persuading Nader supporters to hold their noses and back Gore rather than risk giving the election to Bush. “Before voting Nader, consider the risk,” says one new ad by the National Abortion Rights Action League.

The result is a campaign that focuses obsessively on issues of interest to undecided and independent voters in the swing states. In Florida, even more than in other hotly contested states, the headline issues have been Social Security and lowering the costs of prescription drugs for senior citizens—no surprise in a state where up to a third of voters are over 60. At a local debate in the town of Lake Wales last week, candidates for a seat in the House of Representatives were peppered with questions about both issues. Almost everybody knows someone who can’t afford the drugs they need. “There have been times we’ve left prescriptions at the drug counter,” said Dem Cowles, 54. “I’ve seen a man in tears at the drugstore because he couldn’t pay. There’s no excuse for it.” Gore and Bush both promise help—Gore by adding a prescription drug benefit to the medicare program for seniors, Bush mainly by offering more incentives for private insurers to cover drugs for older people. Likewise on Social Security: both agree it must be strengthened for the fast-approaching day when tens of millions of baby boomers retire and demand their pensions. But their solutions differ sharply. Gore would take money saved by paying down the national debt to shore up the system. Bush would allow younger workers to invest a small portion of their Social Security taxes in the stock market—with the idea that they could accumulate their own retirement nest egg over several decades. The biggest issue dividing them is taxes: Bush offers a massive cut adding up to $1.3 trillion over the next 10 years, while Gore proposes targeted cuts of $500 billion—mostly to middle-income taxpayers.

The debate parallels that in Canada: how to distribute the hard-won government surpluses now starting to accumulate in government coffers? After decades of deficits, Washington started running a small surplus of $700 million in 1999; this year the figure is $81 billion; and the latest forecast for the next decade is for accumulated surpluses adding up to a staggering $4.6 trillion—yes, with a “t.” All the politicians’ promises depend on that windfall, the result of deep spending cuts and greater-than-anticipated tax revenue from the booming economy of the 1990s.

The problem is that the money may well not be there. The rosy forecasts for the future, of course, may not be fulfilled. And Congress, flush with the prospect of so much cash, has cranked up spending in a pre-election rush—by $100 billion in the past few weeks alone. If that trend continues, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group called the Concord Coalition reported recently, the 10-year surplus would be a comparatively modest $712 billion—nowhere near enough to finance all the pledges. In short, the group concluded, “the candidates may just be playing on a field of dreams.”

The paradox of the election is that in such prosperous times, with such a stellar record to draw on, Gore is fighting for his political life. President Bill Clinton, despite the scandals that rocked his administration, still scores high marks for job approval. And recent polls show that voters actually prefer Gore's positions on a host of issues from education and health care to Social Security and the environment, as well as considering him more knowledgeable, compassionate and experienced. It should be a romp for the vice-president—but it has been anything but.

Some point to the lingering, largely unspoken legacy of the Clinton scandals. “People want both change and continuity,” argues Charles Cook, a respected nonpartisan election analyst in Washington. “Voters like what they have so they’re not looking for substantive change, but they want a new face. They want an end to the endless stream of embarrassments.” Others fault Gore’s inability to articulate a consistent message—especially his failure until recently to make the most of the Clinton administration’s record. “Gore was with the master [Clinton], but he didn’t learn how to have a clear strategy, theme and message,” says political scientist James Thurber. “He didn’t say, ‘Hey, we’ve got peace and prosperity.’ You don’t have to put your arms around Clinton, but why not say it?”

The reason, in part, is that Gore’s campaign has been riven by squabbling advisers who have not agreed on key issues— such as how to take credit for the good things of the Clinton years while dissociating the vice-president from the bad. In recent days, however, Gore has hammered away at Bush’s tax proposals, calling them a threat to continued good times. “Prosperity itself is on the ballot,” Gore repeats at almost every stop. Bush, in contrast, has had a consistent message for months, attacking the vice-president as a creature of Washington and promising to “restore honor” to the White House—a reminder of the sexual and financial scandals surrounding Clinton.

No wonder that the touchiest question for the Gore camp in the campaign’s final days is how to use Clinton’s undoubted political skills. With the contest so tight, the outcome in Florida and other key states on Nov. 7 may turn on which side is most successful at getting out its supporters (it’s so close, in fact, that one candidate could win a majority of the popular vote while the other wins a majority in the electoral college). Clinton will campaign in California this week in an attempt to rev up Democrats for Gore, but that may provide a fat target for Republicans looking to link the two men in the public mind. In the end, Gore’s dilemma is that his greatest asset is also his greatest liability.—To have your say on the U.S. election

Taking the neighbor for granted

Canada is the United States’ closest friend and biggest trading partner, right? So Canada must have gotten some nod on the U.S. campaign trail, right? Well, no. Except for offhand references to how prescription drugs are cheaper north of the border, Al Gore and George W Bush managed to get through a solid year of campaigning without a substantial mention of their great neighbor. That may be a blow to the national ego, but it’s no real surprise: politicians focus on problems, and right now Canada is not a problem for the United States.

Still, the outcome of the U.S. vote on Nov. 7 will inevitably produce fallout in Canada. Republican George W Bush has promised to cut taxes much more deeply than Democrat Al Gore, so a Bush victory would likely increase pressure on Ottawa to keep cutting taxes to remain competitive. He has also promised to use market-oriented solutions to tackle problems like growing demands on the Social Security system. Nothing would oblige a Canadian government to follow suit, but a Bush administration might provide examples for Canadian conservatives to follow.

After seven years as vice-president, Gore would present few unexpected challenges on bilateral issues. But a Bush administration would differ sharply from Ottawa in at least two areas. Bush has said he will push ahead with an ambitious missile-defence plan, a policy that puts him at odds with most U.S. allies, including Canada. And he favors drilling for oil in Alaska’s sensitive Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which borders the Yukon. Canada has long opposed drilling on grounds that it would threaten the area’s environment.

And what is the effect of having Canadian and American federal campaigns under way at the same time? The last time that happened was 1988—when George Bush won the presidency on Nov. 8 and Brian Mulroney was re-elected 13 days later, on Nov. 21. It seems like a stretch, but one U.S. analyst of Canadian affairs, Christopher Sands of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, argues that either Bush or Gore will emerge after Nov. 7 “with the mantle of change and youthful energy.” Nineteen days later, he asks, “how will Canadians feel about [Jean] Chrétien, whose parliamentary career began before either Bush or Gore graduated from college?”—A.P.