Running For President Is An Unnatural Act. No sane person wakes up every morning, looks in the mirror, and says, "I'm the one!"
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Yet that's what Al Gore, George W. Bush, and, yes, Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader have to do. They also have to lose themselves in a much more public fantasy: the quadrennial odyssey of the presidential campaign. The journey is as bizarre and unhinged from reality as it is important.
The contest operates in what insiders call The Bubble. Flying constantly from city to city, state to state, and coast to coast, the candidates and their entourages lose track of space and time. The routine rarely changes. The plane touches down. The police-protected caravan of buses, vans, and limousines sets off. Traffic is halted. Stoplights don't matter, and the destination barely does. It's another gymnasium or amphitheater or elementary school. It could be anywhere. The speech is always the same or pretty close, except for the message of the day. The candidate's job is to deviate not a whit. The job of the press is to pounce on the slightest deviation.
The miracle is that citizens find anything to help them decide whom to vote for. Luckily, they aren't easily fooled. They reject artifice, which is most of what they see. They crave sincerity and recognize the odd moments when it appears. The Kiss was Gore's genuine moment, and it helped him. Bush flashed into view when he derided a Times man and smooched Oprah; those moments helped too. But we learn more from mishaps, accidents, and inadvertence than from policy statements or 30-second ads. Judgment in the clutch is what a President must possess. That's why voters look most intently at a candidate's reaction when his script falls apart.
A reliable medium for such discovery is photography. The camera doesn't lie, and when handled by the right lensman it can capture the insights we need. Robert McNeely is a veteran watcher of political imagery and an expert at spotting those telling instants. He began covering presidential campaigns in 1972 and for six years was the official photographer for Bill Clinton's White House. (His book, The Clinton Years, has just been published.) More than a year ago McNeely started to ride the campaign trail for his own project, Photo 2000, and for FORTUNE as well. These and the following pages will jog our memories about some of the twists and detours along the way. They also show us some things we didn't know. Those are the points that count.
With their elaborately staged events, confected as they are for television, candidates strive to conceal their true natures. But over time their campaigns turn out to be better windows than masks. Their humanity peeks through. We learned something troubling when Bush didn't answer "Bring him on" to Gore's debate challenge. We heard something upsetting when Gore sang what he claimed was a childhood lullaby that was really a jingle written when he was 27. In the end, we will weigh weaknesses, then choose.
The pageant itself is also worth exploring. Think of the road shows as chameleon campaigns: They alter their colors depending on the candidate's standing in the polls. When Gore was behind, he changed themes as often as his wardrobe. When he was ahead, his populist message was as steady as a drumbeat. Gore also became slightly looser when he led in the polls (though he was never very loose). Reporters even witnessed him dancing with his wife. Bush, when he was ahead, ran as if he were the incumbent, delivering dreary speeches from podiums, sometimes with the aid of TelePrompTers. When he fell behind, he started to stand in the middle of his audiences in "one-on-ones" (town hall meetings) and bantered for hours. The method suits him. But he also refrained from being as chatty with reporters as he struggled to stick to his message of the day.
That's a shame. Bush has always been more fun to cover. Until he clammed up a bit recently, he was forever sassing the press in the back of his plane. He touched them. He rubbed their heads. He even kissed one TV producer's (injured) foot. Still, Bush can't stop relating. The regulars have nicknames: A CNN correspondent is Dolce, a New York Times reporter is Pancho. Gore, on the other hand, isn't nearly as cuddly. At the end of September, he held his first news conference in 65 days.
The candidates talk when they have to, however, and to an ever smaller group of voters, most of whom are female. Linda Divall, a Republican pollster, says that only about 10% of likely voters haven't yet made up their minds. Of that group, she estimates, at least 60% are women. That makes this election season the Year of the Women. Both candidates will spend a lot of their remaining time courting female voters. Gore targets lower- and middle-income women. Bush aims a little more upscale. But, in general, the reason you'll see the candidates reading in classrooms or visiting nursing homes is that those are places that women care a lot about.
Campaigns, in fact, are a lot like real estate. Three things matter: location, location, and location. In the closing weeks the candidates will focus on seven locations--Florida and six states strung across the middle of the country (Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin). These are the toss-up states where the White House will be won or lost. The more often a candidate visits each place, the more his message will be heard. The nominees will try to rally the faithful and appeal to the dwindling number of voters who still can be swayed.
How do these laggards choose? More often than we suspect it's a feeling that moves them, not a policy opinion. "Most people view voting as an intellectual enterprise," says Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign, a campaign-finance-reform organization. "What is underestimated is what happens in their gut." Maybe something as simple as a picture will help turn the tide.