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Soft leads, tough calls

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I suppose it's because I've been watching the political scene for so many years. I keep being asked by readers and even by my colleagues: "How do you think it's going to come out?" Unvaryingly I've given this answer: "It's close, and I think it will stay close right down to the end."

Since first providing that answer some weeks ago, Al Gore has moved in the polls from well behind to slightly ahead. But I think the contest remains close simply because of the softness - the lack of a strong commitment - that is behind the backing for both Gore and Bush.

That is, when voters tell a pollster that they're "for Gore" or "for Bush" they are not, for the most part, saying how eagerly they are looking forward to voting for their favorite candidate. Instead of "three cheers" for one or the other of these candidates (we'll omit the "third" candidates for this discussion), the voters can only muster two less-than-enthusiastic cheers or even one tepid cheer.

And now to my main point: A soft electorate like this can move back and forth rather easily.

"It's fluid," pollster John Zogby told us at a recent Monitor breakfast. "It could go right down to the wire like the Kennedy-Nixon race in 1960." That contest, lest someone doesn't remember, almost brought about a recount.

But I found my principal support for my "soft electorate" thesis in findings of pollster Celinda Lake, who also sat in with the Monitor group recently. She had measured the "intensity" of the voters in making their selection for president, and she said that supporters of both candidates were showing much less than full intensity for the man they said they liked.

And here is something this Democratic pollster disclosed that shouldn't be overlooked by those who think Bush won't be able to remain in contention to the end: According to her polling, within this general context of less-than-full intensity of support for both candidates, "we found there was more intensity for Bush than for Gore."

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