Stuck in the middle with you

WASHINGTON –Three days before the 2000 election, with GeorgeBush and Al Gore neck and neck, baffled pollster John Zogby triedan experiment.

If you were a citizen of Oz, his analysts asked, would you pickthe Scarecrow or the Tin Man for mayor?

Given the choice between a candidate with no brains but heartand one with no heart but brains, respondents returned a remarkableanswer: 46.2 percent versus 46.2 percent.

“That told me everything I needed to know: that I wasn’t goingto know who was going to win this election,” Zogby said.

Four years on, perhaps the most surprising thing is that nothinghas changed – even after a cataclysmic, unifying event like theSept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“We are now no different than we were Nov. 8, 2000. It’s like9/11 never happened,” he said.

Some pollsters say the pool of undecided voters is smaller thanever.

“We have not seen this split since the Civil War,” Zogby said.”We’re at stalemate.”

“We had an unparalleled period of national unity after the 9/11attacks,” said Pew Research Center Director Andrew Kohut. “But theway of dealing with the attacks -war in Iraq -became the issue thatdivided us again.”

Not only are voters divided 50-50, but the electoral college is,too, with a few big liberal states counterbalanced by numeroussmall conservative states.

U.S. citizens are also more hardened in their views now than inrecent memory. Demographers and political scientists say theyhaven’t seen an electorate so partisan in 50 years.

The Gallup poll found 91 percent of Republicans approve of thejob Bush is doing, while only 17 percent of Democrats agree – thelargest gap since Gallup began gauging job approval in 1948.

“This remains a country that is almost evenly dividedpolitically – yet further apart than ever in its political values,”a Pew Research Center survey of historical opinion pollsconcluded.

Pollster Scott Rasmussen said the explosion of media options inthe last decade has helped polarize opinion. Voters seek outcompatible news outlets online and on cable.

“We don’t listen to opposing views anymore,” he said.

That makes for a political chasm that seems unbridgeable.

“You ask Republicans about the economy, they say it’s good andgetting better. You ask Democrats, they say it’s poor and gettingworse,” Rasmussen said. “They’ve learned the scripts.”

The Pew Research Center estimates the number of swing voters _those who are undecided or only leaning toward one candidate – atabout 30 percent. Zogby’s estimate is much smaller: closer to 5percent.

Such hardened opinions explain why a fearsome surge incasualties in Iraq this month and growing questions about the Bushadministration’s commitment to fighting terrorism before Sept. 11,2001, had little influence on recent polls.

It’s also why Bush’s $50 million ad blitz failed to demolishSen. John Kerry, and why recent positive economic news hasn’tboosted Bush.

“Every now and then a news story breaks that puts one of themahead for a few days, but it always comes back to the same tie,”Rasmussen said.

“After the way things ended four years ago,” he said, “everybodyis on hold, just waiting for a rematch.”

–New York Daily News