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Confidence Game

Why everybody thinks Bush is winning.

IF YOU TUNED in to the presidential race this final week, you probably read that George W. Bush is winning. “Bush exuded confidence as he made his way west yesterday,” reported The Washington Post, in a typical account. Bush’s “confidence” has stood in sharp contrast to A1 Gore, who has invariably been described in news reports as “frantic” and “desperate.” These are all code words reporters use to transmit a sense of who’s winning the horse race. And, as the feeling that Bush was pulling away permeated the political class, conservatives began to gloat, and liberals reverted to their cherished habit of preparing vicious recriminations for the inevitable defeat.

The problem is, the evidence that Bush is winning isn’t that strong. Yes, for more than a week he has maintained a small but consistent lead in national polls. But national polls don’t necessarily reflect the true state of the race. In an electoral-college system—in which it doesn’t matter if a candidate wins a state by one vote or one million—Bush’s huge advantages in the South and the mountain states are essentially wasted votes. Gore, meanwhile, is pulling close—or even slightly ahead—in the battleground states. Polls this week have even shown him surging ahead in Florida and perhaps leading slightly in Michigan and Pennsylvania. If I were betting on the popular vote, I’d choose Bush. But in the electoral college it’s still a toss-up.

So why do journalists and talking heads keep saying Bush is headed for victory? Partly because the Bush campaign keeps telling them so. In the past, chief Bush strategist Karl Rove has said he believes that in the final days before an election, a bandwagon effect takes oven And, since its inception, Bush’s campaign has carefully cultivated its front-runner image—in the belief that acting like a winner can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. When Bush picked Dick Cheney as his running mate, his advisers deafly hoped the fact that the former defense secretary brought no swing state and no voting bloc would be interpreted not as a liability but as a sign of strength. And, among the press and the politicos, it generally was. “Bush is confident enough of victory over Al Gore,” wrote E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post, “that he has pushed aside the obvious political factors so he’ll have a chance of governing in tandem with an intelligent and faithful adviser.” Today, Team Bush is trying that confidence game again, and once again it’s working with the Fourth Estate. But there’s less evidence it’s working with the people who matter: the voters.

THIS WEEK’S STRONGEST sign that Bush thinks he’ll win, according to the press, was his trip to California. While Gore was spending the campaign’s last week in his home state of Tennessee and on traditionally Democratic terrain like Oregon, Minnesota, and West Virginia, Bush was indulging in the unimaginable luxury of visiting what is considered an overwhelmingly Democratic state.

Surely, the press reasoned, this was evidence Bush was going to win. “[F]or Bush, the trip yesterday was an important display of confidence in the final hour.” The Boston Globe dutifully reported from Burbank, “a yardstick by which voters could measure how well he is doing elsewhere, strategic proof that Gore’s back is against the wall.” CNN’s “Crossfire” used Bush’s trip as an occasion to devote an entire show to the question “Can Bush win this Democratic stronghold?” And reporters endlessly said polls in the Golden State were tightening, when in fact they held steady, with Gore leading by seven to ten points for close to a week. The objective evidence paled before the overwhelming psychological proof of Bush’s confidence.

And, by the media’s logic, if Bush’s trip to a state where he was behind meant he was confident—which meant he was winning—then Gore’s visits to states where the two were running neck and neck meant he was nervous and therefore losing. For most of this crucial week, that has been the framework in which much of the vice president’s behavior has been understood. So when the Gore campaign attacked Bush’s preparedness for office, many news stories suggested it was a sign of desperation, even though Bush’s assault on Gore’s veracity was never interpreted the same way. “All of the horrible negative stuff that Gore does,” says Republican pollster Bill McInturff, “gets filtered through the lens of desperation.”

And there is indeed some psychological literature to support the Bush campaign’s strategy. The German psychologist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann posited a “spiral of silence,” according to which people who believe they hold a minority opinion grow less likely to express it openly—a process that builds upon itself. The problem with applying this theory to the campaign, however, is that, as Democratic pollster Mark Mellman observes, “it’s decidedly untrue.” In fact, the theory has already failed Bush at least once this year. The day before February’s New Hampshire primary, for instance, as his rivals frantically crisscrossed the state, Bush was photographed frolicking in the snow. The next day, of course, Bush was trounced by John McCain.

What’s more, in the final days of past presidential elections, undecided voters have actually moved toward the candidate who appeared to be trailing. Richard Nixon rose at the end of the 1960 campaign, as did Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Gerald Ford in 1976, and Ronald Reagan in 1980. Gore could well lose, but if he pulls out a close win, Bush’s California trip may be remembered as a colossal blunder. After all, he could have spent his time in states that were actually close in the polls rather than simply close in his head.

This article appeared in the November 13, 2000 issue of the magazine.