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).
No matter how high we fly, fate (fate and media are similar arbiters, in this instance) will always bring us down. Even if we win, it will be costly.
Then there is the social-science aspect of our coverage, wherein the candidate becomes a sort of Rorschach test. The story we seek is about what voters really perceive, what angels or what demons they perceive, in this blot known as the candidate – or what we in the media perceive voters to perceive. The subliminal rats frame in the Bush ads was uninspired but obviously intended. Perception has become the most powerful political force – as patronage used to be.
Polling, of course, gives us the basis with which to measure these dawning perceptions. We comb the polls for such meaning, such deviations. Big news is the discovery of a new perception (let us not, at this time, get into the nuance that candidates are perceived on the basis of how we, the people who are reporting about the perception, present the candidates). Now, as it happens, there are few working reporters who actually understand anything about polling, or who have ever questioned the underlying methodology of a poll. Hence, the poll moves from quantitative information to anecdotal information – we report it as an event, as though the election has occurred. Of course, the wide reporting of polls (such-and-such a poll by such-and-such an organization you’ve never heard of puts Gore eight points ahead!) as actual events turns around and helps fulfill the accuracy of the theoretical report.
Then, too, in the logic of reversals, there is our economic self-interest. Reversals are good for business. The rehabilitation of Al Gore means we have a playable story. A horse race. A presidential dead heat. What Andrew Sullivan recently called, with a skip in his voice, “this unexpectedly fascinating election.”
I should note that I am not suggesting press bias. What’s going on here is actually the opposite of bias. Contravening the age-old Republican fears of a liberally biased press is a knee-jerk objectivity at the root of the reversal. In other democratic countries, each media outlet states its bias and more or less delivers its dutiful message. In American journalism, fairness becomes the bias. At some point, after taking a beating, if you provide the least pretext, good things will be said about you; or, conversely, if you’ve been the beneficiary of positive stuff, that munificence comes back to bite you.
Who’s in and who’s out is just part of the natural flow of the campaign cycle.
Here, then, is how you, the candidate, should work this new reversal paradigm.
The immutable law of reversals holds that you can count on members of the press running in the same direction. The ultimate job of the campaign is therefore to try to control at what point the counter-stampede begins.
But the reversal itself of, say, 125 to 165 degrees (media always preserve a little wiggle room) is a certainty. Everything that rises must come down; when you hit the bottom, you can count on coming up. Because a campaign is finite, 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, so the crux of your job, or of your campaign operatives’, is to see to it that your positive opposite strikes as close as possible to Election Day – indeed, positive press at the wrong time can lose you the election.
This law of reversals is called, too, more bombastically, “the swing of the pendulum.”
“The snickermongers now encouraging the bashing of Bush have to worry about another swing of the pendulum,” writes William Safire, doubtless aware that the pendulum has quite a fixed arc and that, at this point, it is pretty unlikely that it could accomplish the double reversal needed to save Bush.
This law is also called peaking too early – but that suggests you’ve given it your all and didn’t have what it takes to persevere. Rather, it seems to me, the real problem is peaking too late. You want to go down with time to come up.
“Let’s conserve the positives,” I once heard a political consultant say – I thought he was talking about how to stay up when you’re up; now I understand he was talking about having to pay back on your positives (which, in a sense, are borrowed from the media) when you could least afford it. The Bush people are now making a balloon payment.
What was the Bush campaign thinking to let itself ride so high in June and July? That’s dopiness for sure.
Still. With the new speed of information, you ought to be able to enhance the pace of reversals. If you can shrink the reversal cycle to two months, we could, just in time, see a charming and irascible George W. again.