How to Pick a Winner
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Washington pundits act as if they know who will end up in the White House. But picking the winner isn't as easy as they make it out to be; it's a complicated and capricious process. Some advice to keep you ahead of the pack:

The first rule of prognostication: Don't believe anyone who claims to know who's going to win. Certainty is a sure sign of ignorance, especially when it comes to an election that's still months away. There's no reason to distrust the polls that have shown George W. Bush ahead of Al Gore all summer. At the same time, a closer look at the numbers reveals that, until Bush's post-convention bounce, the margin of his lead has usually been so small that the built-in error rate of the surveys renders his advantage all but meaningless.

The other problem with polls is that the numbers we're seeing lately are obsolete almost the moment they're published. If history is a guide, Bush's ascent in the ratings through the Republican convention in Philadelphia will be followed by a similar move up by Gore during his time in the spotlight in Los Angeles. The rise of each man will be followed by a fall.

Which brings us to Rule 2: The best time to look at the polls is on Labor Day. Political scientist James Campbell of the State University of New York at Buffalo believes that the temporary euphoria of the conventions will have worn off by then. He says history suggests the candidate ahead in the polls on Labor Day is likely to be ahead on Election Day as well, though by about half the margin. Even Bill Clinton's runaway lead in 1996 against the listless Bob Dole narrowed at the end.

And that leads to Rule 3: Presidential elections tend to be close, and this one should be no exception. In fact, this year's race is probably going to be a nailbiter, despite the early press that asserted that Gore didn't have what it takes. Don't believe much of what you've read so far; the national conventions and the early autumn campaign almost always bring at least one major upset that alters the way we perceive the nominees, like Ross Perot's surprise (albeit temporary) exit from the 1992 race.

The rest of my advice involves ignoring your own opinions. Most people see politics through the prism of their own views. But chances are, if you're reading this, you aren't an average American; FORTUNE's readers are generally wealthier and better educated than the bulk of voters. In other words, whatever you think about the presidential contest is probably an elite perspective, and therefore not the prevailing one.

And thus to Rule 4: Don't pretend that you can feel the mood of the People. You can assess your own leanings. But that isn't the same as guessing what the tides of the upcoming election will bring. Indeed, understanding America is pretty much useless when it comes to figuring out who's going to win. The voters who decide elections are the one-third or so of citizens who aren't sure whom they're going to vote for. About a third of us are die-hard Democrats. Another third are Republicans. Asking anyone in these categories who's going to win is a waste of time. Before you inquire of someone who they think will win, ask first whom they voted for the last time and whom they'll vote for this time. If both answers are partisan responses, ask someone else.

The best hint you'll get about the outcome in November will come from someone who is a surprise switcher. If you find a friend or relative who usually votes Republican but is going Democratic this time, or vice versa, you've found a bellwether.

Rule 5: When you hear an inclination that turns your head, that's evidence worth savoring. It would go like this: Aunt Mary usually votes for Democrats and cast her ballot twice for Bill Clinton. But Bush has grabbed her attention, and Gore is too stiff for her to accept. Mark down Mary on your tote sheet. The same for Cousin Ned. He doesn't like Gore but will vote for him sensing that Bush isn't up to the job. If Ned voted for Dole or the elder Bush in years past, his opinion is worth remembering.

A last suggestion: Don't go nuts over every new twist. Joe Lieberman would be a fine Veep, but he's not the whole story. Stay tuned.

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