In the US, ignorance wins votes

I always liked the story of how the late Robert Maxwell, when Labour MP for Buckingham, would order his staff to pore over the births, marriages and deaths notices in the Buckingham Advertiser. To the newly bereaved, the kind and considerate man would send heartfelt letters of condolence; to the newly married, he would dispatch his very best wishes; and new mums and dads would puff up with pride when they received personal letters of congratulations on House of Commons notepaper. But then, one week, a hapless Maxwell employee mixed up the files. Grieving widows duly received letters of hearty congratulations, newlyweds messages of profound sympathy, and so on.

Well, I can report this week that Maxwell's Election 2000 equivalent is alive and well and living over here. State Senator John Huppenthal of Arizona, a Republican, recorded an enthusiastic "vote for me" message into a computer that was then supposed automatically to dial 3,000 floating voters in his constituency (a practice that is illegal in many states but not in Arizona). Senator Huppenthal programmed the computer himself - to start dialling all the numbers at 10am, one by one, until a real live voter picked up the phone to hear Huppenthal's magically seductive tones.

He then went to bed dreaming of the voters he would sway. The only problem was that he had missed out a zero when setting the automatic-dial feature of the computer - and, one by one and throughout the night, 3,000 households in his constituency were woken up from 1am to hear his recorded voice. He has now vowed to phone each one in person to apologise, and has so far reached 150: only 2,850 to go, John ol' boy.

Gaffes have become already the defining factor in Election 2000. The man who commits the fewest gaffes will win the White House; it's as simple as that. Policies don't matter in this election, nor character, nor any of the conventionally accepted reasons for voting. It is an election that will be won or lost according to the number of gaffes the media proclaims the frontrunners have committed, a phenomenon that vests extraordinary power in the media. (As Tony Blair will soon find out when the British media turns on him: the Sun only has to print a huge front-page headline like "CLANG!" and millions of readers will assume a clanger really has been dropped by whomever the Sun ordains.)

So far, conventional wisdom here has it that the two frontrunners - George Bush Jr ("Dubbya") and Al Gore - have committed two major gaffes, both serious but neither fatal. Eight months ago, Gore said something on CNN that he will never entirely live down: "I took the initiative in creating the Internet," he deadpanned with that peculiarly self-regarding earnestness of his. Now, without fail, he brings in a self-mocking reference to that gaffe in every campaign speech he makes; one phenomenon of this election is that the ability to spin or laugh your way out of a gaffe has become the next most important factor.

But a second gaffe also subtly conveys Gore's smug arrogance in a way that strikes a chord with people. He tried to paint himself as a Tennessee farm boy who spent years shovelling cow dung, when everyone knows he was a privileged Wasp brought up in a luxury hotel in Washington - deceits that are harder to counterspin and easy fodder for the TV ads blitz which began this week.

So far, indeed, the tussle among the Democrats is the dirtiest. Someone has just discovered that a Gore aide has applied, under the Freedom of Information Act, to get secret files on Bill Bradley. Gore is busily trying to rubbish Bradley's health plans, which have the kind of radical foresight distinctly lacking in Gore. While Gore desperately tries to transform himself into the alpha male he isn't, Bradley retains an aloof, presidential demeanour. (By far the funniest media moment of the past week, in fact, came when Robert Reich, the former labour secretary in the Clinton-Gore administration, endorsed Bradley: the photo-opportunity had to be with Reich sitting down, because he is 4ft 10in while Bradley, the former New York Knicks basketball player, is 6ft 5in.)

And Dubbya? His biggest gaffe so far came when a smoothiechops television interviewer in New Hampshire successfully exposed his ignorance of foreign affairs by forcing him to admit that he couldn't name the leaders of Chechnya, Taiwan, Pakistan or India. I suspect that won Dubbya more support than it lost him, this country being so proudly insular and scornful of small nations. What was more revealing was that Dubbya didn't have the political nous to see the trap looming and extricate himself from it (as Bradley managed to do when smoothiechops tried it on with him).

Much more alarming, too, was Dubbya's mindless support for the military coup in Pakistan, exposing woeful ignorance of the dangers of nuclear weaponry. Would that this mattered in the 2000 election, but it doesn't. American voters couldn't care less about Chechnya; Dubbya would commit a meaningful gaffe only if he promised to send US troops to fight there, pledged to triple income tax, or something of the kind.

What really makes this the Gaffe Election, though, is that Dubbya is entirely capable of such an error. Right up until election day he could blow it all by losing his cool, say, with another smoothie-chops (where are you, Jeremy?). Gore will plod on, but that self-regarding smugness is always likely to land him in trouble, too.

How Cap'n Bob, campaigning with a carnation in his lapel and that monumentally hypocritical beam on his face, would be revelling in the mediocrity of it all.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.