But underneath the trifles, say Boston College political observers, lie the makings of what could be one of the most pivotal, far-reaching referendums in American history.
Alan Wolfe: "I can't say I'm particularly sympathetic when I hear people say they don't find these two candidates either the most exciting or attractive."
"It's just unfortunate," he added, "that so much energy has been spent on the issue of Gore's 'abrasive' persona, or whether Bush can string together more than two sentences at a time."
Melnick is one of several BC faculty who discussed Campaign 2000 trends with Chronicle last spring, when Bush and Gore had nailed down their parties' nominations. Interviewed last week, the faculty members revisited some of their earlier analysis, while offering thoughts - but no predictions - about next Tuesday's election outcome.
"What's surprising, really, is how little surprise there is this time around," said Assoc. Prof. Dale Herbeck (Communication), who was among a panel of experts asked by the National Journal to evaluate the presidential debates. "This election year is unique in that it's so close, and the media doesn't really have to hype it."
Bush versus Gore may lack the stature of past presidential contests, especially one with such potential historical importance, the faculty experts say. But the two candidates have at least articulated significantly different policy positions on issues such as tax cuts, school vouchers and government spending.
The BC faculty say Bush - for all the doubts about his preparedness and abilities - has been able to establish himself as a more serious contender than had been thought. Part of the reason for this has been Gore's miscalculations, they say: In trying to distance himself from the Clinton scandals, he has failed to tie himself to the administration's economic successes.
Melnick says Bush has demonstrated a certain cleverness in his presentation. "Bush says, in effect, 'I don't know much about politics or Washington, but neither do you - so I'm one of you,'" he explained.
Both men face the challenge of attracting votes from an electorate that is not only highly ambivalent about its choice, faculty note, but also increasingly reluctant to exercise it in the voting booth.
One bona-fide trend emerging in this year's campaign, the faculty say, is the unprecedented number of voters who consider themselves independent and undecided. Melnick, who had predicted the election would likely hinge on Bush's ability to tout character issues against Gore's reliance on the administration's economic record, said he finds this somewhat surprising.
"I thought by now it would be clear which way the pendulum would swing," he explained. "There may not have been an election year where we've had a voting public with such an ambivalent view of the outgoing administration. They credit Clinton and Gore for their economic and foreign policy, but are very unhappy about their moral leadership."
Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life Director Prof. Alan Wolfe (Political Science) takes a dim view of so many voters' apparent lack of partisanship. Their supposed independence, he explains, merely invites Bush and Gore to minimize their ideological and policy differences and, in so doing, put more emphasis on image and appearance.
"I can't say I'm particularly sympathetic when I hear people say they don't find these two candidates either the most exciting or attractive," said Wolfe, who authored an op-ed piece in the New York Times recently on" The Tyranny of the Undecided Voter."
"I don't find them exciting or attractive, either, but that's not the point in a democracy," he said. "Lacking a political tradition, voters fail to see that their views on education and Social Security, for example, might be related to one another, and that both reflect a distinctive philosophical understanding of human purpose."
Political Science Chairperson Prof. Kay Schlozman, meanwhile, points to a trend she says is disquieting: the steady decrease in voters at the polls, as evidenced by the 1996 election, which saw the smallest turn-out since 1924 despite improvements in the voter registration process.
Schlozman cites another trend she terms significant: Traditionally, she says, the single best predictor of voter participation has been voters' level of education. But during the past generation, levels of turnout have declined even as more Americans are achieving higher education levels.
Distrust of and alienation from the political system are certainly factors, she says, and the general weakness of political parties may also contribute to this trend. "There was a time when parties reached out more to voters, such as by offering rides to the polls," Schlozman said. "It just doesn't happen as much anymore."
Popular culture appears to be filling the vacuum left by the parties, according to Herbeck. In this scenario, he said, the power brokers are the likes of Regis Philbin, David Letterman and Oprah Winfrey, all of whom hosted one or both of the candidates. Further evidence of this pop culture influence could be seen in the third presidential debate's format, he said, "which looked like an afternoon talk show."
Herbeck added, "It says a lot that not only were the candidates invited to appear on these shows with the full expectation they would accept, but that Bush and Gore really coveted these appearances."
Barring any dramatic last-minute events or turns of fate, the faculty say, the night of Nov. 7 is likely to be a spellbinder. "It looked pretty close for a while in 1980, but then in the last week or so the election broke in Ronald Reagan's direction," Melnick said. "That's the only parallel I can think of, but this is a whole new year."
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