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To vote or not to vote, that is the question

Green and blue rectangular signs with white blocky letters peek out from student dorm rooms around Grounds. With these posters, politically-minded students cheer on their candidate of choice as the 2000 presidential election dawns on the University.

"Vote Gore" and "Bush 2000" signs beckon to passersby and remind them that voting not only fulfills one aspect of civic duty, but also allows University students to emerge from the "bubble" of college life by participating in a nationwide event.

Television coverage of Al Gore and George W. Bush is hard to ignore as the leading candidates make appearances on shows ranging from The Oprah Winfrey Show and MTV's Choose or Lose to the more traditional presidential debates. They have been the center of media attention for months, whether it be kissing Oprah or kissing their wives.

"I was going to vote for Al Gore until I saw him kiss his wife on TV. Now I'm not too sure," fourth-year College student Linda Hu said.

Many students want to make sure the person they vote for will support the policies they find important. Both the Gore and Bush campaigns have emphasized health care, an issue that appeals to older voters, including baby-boomers, who comprise a large portion of the electorate.

Devoting face time to older voters makes sense, considering the Census Bureau reported that only 32.4% of the electorate aged 18-24 voted in 1996. But for those who are voting, a candidate's stand on certain issues, makes a difference.

Hu does not know what to make of Al Gore kissing his wife at the Democratic Convention, but she does agree with some of Gore's policies.

"I like Gore's policies on the environment, poverty, the economy and the fact that he's pro-choice," Hu said.

Third-year College student Sara Guttman voted for Gore and supports some stands taken by Ralph Nader as well.

Gore's "not perfect, no candidate is," Guttman said.

She also thinks Bush lacks specifics when it comes to policy.

"What it comes down to is that you'll vote for Bush if you agree with him on certain issues that are black and white, like if you're pro-life," Guttman said.

Although a candidate's position on policy is important, Philip D. Zelikow, director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs, points out that a campaign position is not necessarily an indicator of legislation to be passed in the future.

"Policy positions are often announced in a campaign with exaggerated specificity, like the way hundreds of photographs can be assembled into a mosaic," Zelikow said.

Candidates will go to great lengths to show where they stand on issues, such as abortion and welfare, which could be the deciding factor for many voters. But there are still other factors to consider when choosing a side in the presidential race.

With increased television coverage, which allows voters to scrutinize a candidate's every word and move, character and personality play largely into a candidate's "likeability." Some voters note Al Gore's stiffness when speaking or George W. Bush's seeming lack of knowledge in some areas. Many choose to vote for the candidate they find more honest or trustworthy, or simply more likable, rather than one who necessarily shares their views on policy.

"In many ways, character, temperament and integrity are more durable guides to presidential performance. But such qualities will rarely be apparent by whether, in Gore's case, Al Franken wrote good jokes for his appearance on Letterman," Zelikow said.

Seeing a candidate speak can have an impact on the way a person views him.

"I get the impression Gore's like the shy awkward kid who's actually really smart," fourth-year Engineering student Kristen Vincent said.

But some voters are not influenced by a candidate's on-air charm.

"Bush can be very charismatic, I'll give him that, but he doesn't impress me as a politician. I'm sure he's a great person, but you're not voting for a president because he's a great person," fourth-year College student Cory Shapard said.

The fact remains that voters can make their decision based on whatever criteria they deem significant.

"In a democracy, people can choose a candidate on any basis they wish. They can choose a candidate on hair color if they want to," said Larry J. Sabato, government and foreign affairs professor.

In Virginia, Bush has a significant lead and is predicted to take the state's electoral votes. But these poll numbers are by no means set in stone.

"Some Republicans say, 'Bush has got it. Why bother?' Some Democrats say, 'Bush has got it. Why bother?' But there are always surprises and upsets," Sabato said.

Second-year College student Jakara Hubbard considers voting for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, but at the same time knows he has no realistic chance of winning.

"I have to make a decision either to follow my beliefs and vote for Nader at this point, or vote for Gore because he at least still has a chance. But I don't like it that government works this way and it puts me in a position where I can't vote for who I believe in [for fear a candidate I don't support may win]," Hubbard said.

Hubbard, like many other students, attended Nader's appearance at the University last month.

"I saw Ralph Nader when he came here. He pretty much convinced me that voting for Gore was as much a throwaway vote [in Virginia] as voting for him," Hubbard said.

Most agree that the candidate who will take Virginia is determined already and that their vote will not make a difference. For some, this is reason enough not to vote at all. But Sabato reminds voters that the vote today is not only for president but also for senator, statewide issues and representatives to Congress.

"Arguments like these are not really arguments, but excuses," Sabato said. He recalls the election of 1960, when candidates John F. Kennedy and incumbent Richard Nixon had popular votes differing by tenths of a percentage. He points out that in a close race like this year's, anything can happen, and there may be some surprises.

This year's presidential race may be one that will be too close to call until all the votes are tallied. Every vote potentially can make a difference, assuming people take the time to make that vote.

"Never underestimate the power of the vote, especially in a close election like this," Sabato said.


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