While the November 7th election is still more than two weeks away, the outcome of the election will likely be decided over the course of the next five days.
Several contradictory forces are now working both within a volatile electorate, and an uncertain news media. The average of polls out at the end of the week put Bush at roughly three to four points ahead of Gore. However, since the Tuesday debate the trend of news coverage has leaned against Bush. Not overwhelmingly, of course. But the focus of news has squarely been on Bush's Social Security privatization plan, and the direction of that news has been largely negative. The same has been true, to a lesser extent, with regards to Bush's tax plan.
Looking back over the last eight weeks, the race has been evenly enough counterpoised, that the candidate who has been put on the defensive by the content of most news stories has tended to fall back in the polls. This was true of Bush through September and Gore through October.
Moreover, having played the "Bush Pulls Ahead" line for two or three weeks now, the national media is probably more than ready to move back to a "Gore Rebounds" story line if (and this is a very big "if") the polls and the content of news stories give that storyline any credibility. On the other hand, if Gore's new attacks on Bush fail to get a toehold and if there is further deterioration in Gore's numbers, the media will quickly gel into a "Bush Pulling Away" storyline in which Gore's new attacks will -- regardless of substance -- be seen through the prism of last-minute desperation, and news stories will start to run about what went wrong for Gore, etc. That could amount almost to a death spiral in which a barrage of negative press could make it difficult for Gore to gain any traction at all.
So over the next four to five days both campaigns are going to be fighting a hot and merciless Battle of the Buzz to determine which of these story lines prevails. The news stories which run on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday will have great importance, as will slight movements in a number of daily tracking polls numbers which may in fact have no actual statistical significance, but will matter to journalistic perceptions. The Sunday shows will have even more effect.
Over the last month, the presidential election has had all the feel of bad fiction, in which the hapless author again and again interjects unexpected events and improbable disasters to compensate for a lack of literary talent or any discernable plot line. Witness, most recently, the tragic death of Missouri governor and Senate candidate Mel Carnahan on the eve of the final presidential debate hosted in his state.
But the death of the popular two-term governor may do more than cost the Democrats a seat in the Senate. Under Missouri law, since Carnahan's death came less than a month before the election, his name must remain on the ballot. Presumably, in a very tight race that was tight because of Carnahan's strengths and not Ashcroft's weaknesses, Ashcroft should now win easily. The worry is that this will seriously depress Democratic turnout in a crucial presidential swing state.
News reports out Thursday are that Carnahan's widow will in essence informally take over her late husband's candidacy. This scenario would run as follows: Under the Missouri constitution, should Carnahan still be the winner on election day, his successor as governor, the Democratic Lieutenant Governor, would appoint someone to take his place. Under the plan apparently taking shape, the new governor would announce that if Carnahan is elected he would appoint Carnahan's widow to assume his seat in the Senate.
While it's conceivable that a wave of sympathy or underlying popular affection for Carnahan could make this gambit successful, the odds of victory seem rather long. What it may accomplish, though, is to give Democratic voters a reason to still go to the polls and keep the party's hopes alive in the presidential and gubernatorial races.