(CNSNews.com) - In the 1992 elections that brought Al Gore to the vice presidency, voters had one issue crystallized in their minds by the Clinton campaign: "It's the economy, stupid."
This year, things aren't so clear - and that's bad news for Gore.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Last July, the Washington Post ran a series of articles in which leading political analysts and pollsters predicted an easy win for Gore. Their analysis was largely based on the truism that people vote their pocketbooks, and an incumbent vice president in the middle of a booming economy was untouchable.
But it hasn't worked out that way. In this election, voters' views on the economy are confused. Polls show that most voters believe Al Gore will do a better overall job than Texas Gov. George W. Bush at handling the economy, but voters are divided between the two candidates on many specific economic issues. And ultimately, they rank the economy lower in terms of importance than other hot-button issues such as Social Security, health care, education and integrity in the White House.
For example, 93 percent of likely voters rate handling the national economy a "very important" or "somewhat important" job for the next president, according to a recent ABC News poll. And voters in the same poll choose Gore as likely to do a better job handling the economy by a 14-point margin, 57 percent to 43 percent.
A Portrait of America poll from last week showed similar results: among the 76 percent of voters who said keeping the economy going is a very important issue, 51 percent said Gore's views are closer to their own, 41 percent chose Bush.
So why has Gore's commanding lead on handling the economy failed to translate into a similar lead for him in terms of who should be elected?
One obvious reason is that voters view handling the economy as a less important job than in recent elections, expressing confidence in a continued economic expansion. That is a significant change from election years such as 1980 and 1992, when recessions focused voter attention on economic matters. This year, the same ABC News poll showed the economy 9th on a list of 15 issues of importance to voters.
Voters are also less convinced that the government is the driving force behind economic advances or declines, according to economist Jude Wanniski, a fact he calls "the fruit of the Reagan Revolution."
"People are looking at this economy and realizing, 'Hey, I did this with my investing and hard work, not the government,'" said Wanniski. "That's something that helps [George W.] Bush, since he has pushed the idea of personal responsibility."
The confusing aspect of how voters respond to the economy is apparent when you move beyond the general concept of "handling the economy" to specific economic issues like tax cuts, energy policy and bolstering the stock market. In each of these areas, Bush has held his own.
For example, Portrait of America shows that among voters who consider taxes to be an important issue, Gore and Bush are evenly divided when voters are asked "whose opinion is closer to my own," 45 percent to 45 percent. Gore led by only five points on energy policy/gas prices and was two points behind Bush on protecting future stock market performance.
What has happened, then, to make voters trust Gore generally on handling the economy but finds them so divided on specific economic issues?
Almost all observers agree that Gore's populist, class-based rhetoric like his promise that "I will fight for you" and his frequent slaps at "the wealthiest one percent" - featured prominently in his convention speech and a mainstay of his stump speech ever since - is out of sync with a populace that is as wealthy and satisfied as at any time in American history.
Dorman Cordell, a senior scholar at the National Center for Policy Analysis - a Texas-based think tank whose president, John Goodman, has served as an informal Bush economic advisor - says that the new investor class, which now encompasses 60 percent of likely voters, is more likely to view the wealthiest Americans with admiration rather than suspicion.
"In a technological age, an age of investing, people believe they and their children have a reasonable shot of making it into upper income brackets," said Cordell. "They don't want to be told that getting there is bad or that the people there are leeching off the economy."
According to David Koczar, a political scientist at Gannon University, those that have fared worse in the new economy - the white underclass especially - are those that are most receptive to Gore's tactic. Unfortunately for the vice president, they are also unlikely to vote, according to Koczar.
For those most enthusiastic about their economic future, the middle-class high-wage earners, 60 percent of them say they are likely to vote. In the minds of these voters, says Koczar, Bush has successfully linked Gore to "big government spending," which blunts Gore's "class warfare approach. . . . The populist appeals aren't working like they used to."
In fact, Bush reiterated that theme this past weekend while campaigning in New Mexico, where he told a crowd in Albuquerque, "If my opponent is elected, the era of big government being over is over, and this could spell an end to our current prosperity."
In Tuesday's New York Post, political analyst Dick Morris advised the vice president to "lose the class-warfare garbage he has been trying to push."
"Gore basically lost three debates harping on his tiresome repetition of how well the top 'one percent' of American families will do under the Bush tax plan," said Morris. "Economic populism does not work anymore in America."
Finally, political analysts are bewildered as to why Gore hasn't made the economy a more central theme in his race against Bush, since it is one area where voters are inclined to give him a great deal of credit. Aside from scattered appeals to "keep our prosperity going," throughout the campaign, Gore has not made an all-out push to link himself to the booming economy. Many observers don't understand why.
"We're trying to get the vice president to be a little more boastful, take a little more credit for the good times," said a Democratic consultant who has worked with the Gore campaign. "I think he doesn't want to be seen as taking exclusive credit for the economy, which sounds a little exaggerated to most voters."
In the end, the debate over economic issues, once thought to be Al Gore's strongest suit in the contest for the presidency, has become only marginally important - a win on issues that may mean little at the polls. And that alone may explain why the vice president finds himself several points down with just a week to go.