WASHINGTON - Al Gore will be the next president of the United States. He is, after all, two whole inches taller than his Republican rival. And, as statisticians will tell you, the tallest guy always wins.
Nope. George W. Bush will take the White House. He's up against a sitting vice president. And, political scientists note, the incumbent administration's vice president usually loses if he runs.
Think again. It's Gore. The economy is good, the president is popular, so the incumbent party wins. Plus, the last winner of the Rose Bowl had an animal for a mascot, and statistical models show that Democrats win in those years.
Wait a minute. It's Bush. Easter fell in April this year, and statisticians say that in that case, the Republicans capture the presidency.
Hold everything. It's too close to call. Over the past century, more often than not, the candidate with the most letters in his last name wins. That's four for Gore, four for Bush. Forget it, "W." That initial won't count here.
Who needs campaigns, polls, issues, ideologies? Prognosticators believe they can tell you who your next commander in chief will be without any election-year agony - almost without any election year, period. In an era of instant information, the presidential prognosis is more irresistible than ever.
Of course, there are exceptions to all the truisms.
Among them: Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford even though Carter is several inches shorter.
Martin Van Buren and George Bush triumphed despite the vice-presidential curse.
And the extra letters in Michael Dukakis' name couldn't save him from George Bush.
But distinguished academics brandishing mathematical formulas, statistics lovers with an eye for quirky theories, even astrologers who monitor the planets all believe they have a window into this year's election. They know how you will vote, even if you don't.
For academics, it's a hard science. Operating from reputable universities, analysts plug government data and poll information into computer-generated formulas. Once dismissed as the political equivalent of spell-casting, election forecasting is now a credible mini-industry in government studies, giving professors a chance at great PR before they go back to writing the academic tomes almost no one reads.
"When I started out, people thought it was witchcraft - they wouldn't even publish the papers because they thought it was some kind of voodoo," says Michael Lewis-Beck, a University of Iowa professor who began the predicting trend 20 years ago. "It's changed now. It's not only a serious science, but a very popular science."
"We want the publicity, too," adds Helmut Norpoth, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "We should admit to that."
Nine academics who make election predictions were interviewed for this article; every one insists that Gore will defeat Bush. Most credit the robust economy and the sitting president's high approval ratings. They offer outcomes down to the decimal point (a very close race, they say).
The academics have a good track record: In 1996, most got the right winner months in advance; several even called it nearly to the percentage point. Convinced that their theories are right, the experts even ignore current polls that show Bush leading Gore, as well as recent cries by influential Democrats that the Gore campaign is off to a sluggish start. Prognosticators instead look ahead to how satisfied voters will still be this fall under the Democratic administration.
"It sticks in people's craws, but elections are really about numbers," says Christopher Wlezien, a professor at the University of Houston who offers catch formulas like "Vote=33.19+8.00(Cum.PCIG) +0.29(Approval)" over punditry. He says campaigns still matter - mainly, though, because they help voters recognize that they think the way the experts always said they would.
In a whole other realm are the predictions with just a hint of logic. In that category: The bellwethers.
Chief among them is Pennsylvania. That state has voted for the winning candidate all but five times over the past century. Its smaller towns are considered election-day microcosms - places like Luzerne County, which in recent campaigns has nearly mirrored the national percentage split among the presidential candidates.
Bellwethers are taken seriously enough to prompt early polls to test their mood. In Michigan, where support for the leading candidates fell within 1 percentage point of the national average in three of the past four elections - all eyes are on Macomb County. A recent independent survey showed Bush running 10 points ahead of Gore in that Detroit suburb, known for echoing the national mood among swing voters.
The bellwether theory doesn't work every time. Modoc County in Northern California voted for the winner in every presidential election for three-quarters of a century but missed in 1996. Oregon's Crook County had a 128-year perfect record until 1992. (It came up short that year by just 193 votes.)
Some political scientists insist that bellwethers are apocryphal, as mythic as the village in "Magic Town," the 1947 Jimmy Stewart movie in which all the residents exactly reflect the sentiments in a national opinion poll. America, they argue, is in too much flux for a small population to represent it. Quirky trends might persist for a while, they say, but not forever.
Other measures are similarly debunked, like the New Hampshire rule, where a candidate never wins without taking that state's primary first. Bill Clinton broke that one in 1992.
So, too, the maxim that the only way the Democrats win is with a Southerner on the ticket. Roosevelt, a native New Yorker, won re-election in 1940, even though his second vice president, Henry A. Wallace, was an Iowan, and his last vice president, Harry S. Truman, came from Missouri.
Then there's the folklore - the Farmers Almanac-style models that prove you can make a case for anything if you try hard enough. When Montreal or Toronto wins the Stanley Cup in a presidential year, a Democrat takes the White House. When the American League triumphs in the World Series in a presidential year, the GOP wins; the National League brings the Democrats. If two different films win at least two of the top six Academy Awards, the Democrats prevail. And in years when the Beaujolais wine stinks, the Republican candidate also withers on the vine.
Scattered exceptions exist, but the predictions generally boast fine track records.
There is a scientific explanation for the track records, though.
"It's called data-grubbing," says Gary Smith, a professor at Pomona College in California and author of two statistics textbooks. "If I flip a coin over and over again, sooner or later I'm going to get eight 'heads' in a row. With any random set of data, you can always find patterns if you look long enough and hard enough. Of course, all it proves is that you looked long and hard."
Finally, when all else fails, one more source of prophecies exists. Up there.
"George W. Bush is the best bet," says political astrologer Richard Nolle. "He has a Taurus mid-heaven. The planets are very well aligned for him in this election."
But there is dissent. "Al Gore has Venus in his 10th house, and Saturn is going to be conjuncting with Venus, which means he will be given honor and authority at the time of the election," offers Christine Arens, another chart-reader. "Things look good for Gore."
Here's a parting prediction that you can count on: At least one of them will be right.