WASHINGTON -- The presidential candidate significantly ahead in the polls around Labor Day has won every election for the last 50 years -- which offers little insight into what will happen this year.
Few White House races have been this tight, with Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore virtually tied in many polls and the stage set for a very close race.
"There's a lot of evidence that after Labor Day, the polls start to solidify," said James Campbell, a political scientist from Buffalo, N.Y., and author of "The American Campaign." "People who are responding to polls are responding with a preference they're more definite about."
Actually, Labor Day has less and less significance as a starting point for the fall campaigns, analysts say, because presidential candidates seldom take time off between the party conventions and the holiday any more. But polls need a week or two to settle after the conventions, and that tends to happen by late August or early September.
"As you get away from the conventions, you get a pretty good idea of how the race is going," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
The close relationship of September's polls to November's election is sometimes coincidental because the margin between the candidates often varies widely from the time these surveys are conducted and the election. For example:
-- Richard Nixon led Hubert Humphrey by 12 points in September 1968; the race closed to less than a percentage point by the election.
-- Jimmy Carter was almost 10 points ahead of President Ford in September 1976; the race closed to 50-48 on Election Day.
-- Carter and Ronald Reagan were very close after Labor Day 1980, though Reagan won by 10 points.
Bush's campaign points to 1960 as the year most resembling 2000. John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were very close that September, and the election also was very close.
Gore's operation likes 1988, when then-Vice President George Bush, father of this year's GOP nominee, pulled ahead after his late August convention and went on to comfortably defeat Michael Dukakis.
While Gore's campaign has followed the 1988 pattern so far, veterans of the '88 campaign say the resemblance is limited.
"A lot of things are different this year," said pollster Bob Teeter, who was Bush's deputy campaign manager in 1988. "Dukakis was a poor candidate, and neither Bush nor Gore is as bad a candidate." And Teeter noted Reagan was more personally popular at the end of his term than President Clinton, who has high professional but low personal approval.
The Dukakis campaign has become a model of how not to approach the period between the conventions and Labor Day. He went home to Massachusetts for several days and did not respond aggressively as the Bush campaign took charge.
"I didn't take any time off, what I did do -- and it was probably a mistake -- I wanted to get back home and spend two or three days in my own state, reconnecting," said Dukakis, a former Massachusetts governor. "My great mistake was not to have a well-thought-out strategy for dealing with his attack campaign."
The reference to Labor Day as the traditional starting point for the general election campaign dates back to an era when presidential candidates took a break after the conventions.
Polls after Labor Day are still subject to shifts of opinion.
Columbia University political scientist Robert Shapiro noted that "common sense would suggest an economic downturn or a foreign policy crisis could have an effect."
And anyone who thinks a lead in September is predictive of the election should remember the results from 1948, which changed history, modern polling methods and strategy.
President Truman trailed Thomas Dewey 47 percent to 39 percent in September 1948. Two months later, the newly re-elected Truman got to grin broadly for a now-famous photo of him holding up a newspaper with the mistaken headline -- "Dewey Defeats Truman."
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