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Al Gore Rhythm

In the science of elections, everyone overlooks the iron law of reversals: If you're up, then you're going to be down. Why can't the candidates just master the formula?

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You take a calendar and, working backward, you plot a campaign time line. If, obviously, you want a high point to be on Election Day, then, ergo, you should probably plot a low point round about the beginning of August -- as Gore's was -- and, assuming a three-to-four-month cycle, another low point six to eight months before (surely you can control the lows better than the highs), when, as it happened, Gore found himself in the shadow of Bill Bradley.

It is only my casual observation that major reversals occur every three to four months -- Gore down in the fall, rising by spring, down in the summer, back up in the fall; Bush up in the fall, brought down by McCain in the spring, back up in the summer, and chopped liver at the moment.

This might just be the half of it. Perhaps you can graph the week -- if you're down on Monday, you'll rise by Thursday. It's likely there's a day plan too -- how you rise and fall with the daily news cycle. And there's probably a finely calibrated pre-Election Day time line, three weeks before, one week before, 24 hours prior. Last week's announcement by the Bush people that the campaign would now focus on issues, while on the face of it patently lame (copycat too!), was treated as a forceful step in his campaign for no other obvious reason than that he had been battered the previous week (this positive, however, is against the movement of a much larger negative trend).

You might be able to plot this, and perhaps someone has, on an algorithm basis -- it's action-reaction; there's a limited supply of positive words (forcefulness, traction, high positives) that can be used in a fixed period -- and derive a more accurate time-to-reversal metrics than I am suggesting here.

Now, most of the science of electioneering is well known and studiously reported on by the media -- opposition research, overnight polling, war room, quick-response teams, gender targeting, etc. But the timing thing, a kind of biorhythm for campaigns, is tetchy business because, unlike campaign tactics that are designed to influence or manipulate voters, this is all about playing the predictable behavior of the media.

You win on your ability to control the velocity and incline of your trajectory, both up and down. Perception-wise, you can assume that at some point in the campaign, you will appear to be the opposite of what you are.

We now understand, for instance, in direct counterpoint to what we thought just weeks ago, that Al Gore has a great personality and lots of integrity. The great-guy-magnificent-citizen vector began in the middle of August and, accordingly, should take him through to Election Day.

Make no mistake: I am grateful for the new Gore. But still, it is an improbable development.

If you're paying close attention, and, of course, there aren't many who are, this is weird and badly plotted stuff. Gore suddenly in harmony with Oprah. Gore, with one of the most significant deficits among women of any national Democratic candidate in recent memory, now the favorite of women everywhere. Gore entirely out from under the Clinton relationship.

What is the logic of this reversal?

Is it possible that a banal convention that few people watched had such a mesmerizing effect on the nation?

Was the Lieberman thing truly that big (another example of America's transforming and mysterious love affair with the Jews)?

Or could it be that we in the media are just correcting our past misperceptions -- Gore was, in fact, never remote, disconnected, and phony but actually forceful, personable, and genuine? Indeed, it seems we are correcting a double misperception -- instead of being charming and capable, Bush, now revealed by a series of malapropisms, is obviously a feckless chucklehead (never mind that he's been mashing syntax and pronunciations for the past year).

Of course, this media flip-flop prompts another question: Who exactly has changed his or her mind? Do you personally know any Gore haters who are suddenly saying great guy, good kisser? Or, for that matter, Bush people who are now saying they just never realized how bone-dumb Junior was before?

In campaign engineering, we know that all but a relatively small increment of voters are fixed points. And certainly the 5 to 7 percent of undecided people, concentrated this season, we are told, in four or five Rust Belt states, are by definition ambivalent (read: They couldn't care less) -- hence not the stuff of sudden, revelatory turnarounds.

On the other hand, it is probably such ambivalence and basic lack of interest -- not just on the part of the undecided but on the part of the majority of people who know which way they'll vote -- that creates the context for dramatic reversals. Few people are passionate enough or invested enough to object to a candidate's being upended and upbraided and made into a joke.

Nobody (who isn't paid) is defending anybody.

We are not unwilling at all to see these guys, in their turn, taken down.

It has become a big part of our job, the media job, to foster, encourage, and moderate these improbable reversals. Certainly the keen interest in debates, as uninformative a 90 minutes as you're likely to find on television, is about setting up and televising that single moment when, by a slip or stutter or gesture, the advantage is lost or gained.

Indeed, the post-ideological tone of modern presidential campaign coverage is now largely about watching a more-or-less sorry human comedy. Because no one identifies with people who run for office anymore, coverage has taken on a look-at-these-poor-bastards kind of omniscience.

These are not candidates who represent ideas and programs so much as allegories representing human weaknesses and failings.

The fate of the candidates provides certain wider lessons about over-reaching, and the perils of ambition, and the difficulties -- the impossibility -- of ever escaping our own human flaws (mangled syntax is a perfect symbol of such inescapable flaws).


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