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World Perspective | POLITICS

Americans in Paris Count On Straw Poll for Next President

Patrons at Harry's New York Bar have been calling the vote since 1924. Elsewhere in the world, the U.S. election weighs heavily--or not--on people's minds.

November 04, 2000|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIME STAFF WRITER

PARIS — By Tuesday, 900 or so U.S. citizens will have dropped in at one of the world's most celebrated bars, birthplace of the Bloody Mary, to decide who will be the next president of the United States.

Harry's New York Bar, in the Opera district of Paris, has zero electoral votes and no official role in the American political process. But historically, once the result of the straw poll now going on at this mahogany-paneled Parisian watering hole is known, there's no reason for the election on the other side of the Atlantic to take place at all.

Harry's patrons, who started the opinion sampling in 1924, when Calvin Coolidge won their poll and the American election as well, have proved incapable only once of foretelling the future. That was in 1976, when drinkers at Harry's incorrectly picked Republican Gerald R. Ford over the victor, Democrat Jimmy Carter.

"It was a very close election that year--just a few votes made the difference," manager Christiane Grenier explains apologetically.

If the bankers, journalists and the rest of the mostly male gang who frequent the establishment at 5 Rue Daunou have it right again, Republicans can pop the champagne. (Drinkers at Harry's, which stocks 200 brands of whiskey, would prefer to toast with Scotch, Grenier notes.) As of Friday, the ballots cast in the white wooden box chained to the bar's sideboard were running Bush-Cheney 350, Gore-Lieberman 284, according to the tally posted on the bar's mirror with a grease pencil. That's a 55%-45% split in the GOP's favor.

"We can get rid of all of the consultants and professional pollsters," says a delighted Robert Pingeon, 49, a business consultant who is president of the French chapter of Republicans Abroad. "Because what happens at Harry's seems to be the best poll on the planet."

Not only the vibes from this Parisian barroom but also the ones from the slopes of the Himalayas and the betting parlors of London are shaping up to be very encouraging for Republican nominee George W. Bush and running mate Dick Cheney.

S.P. Gupta, an astrologer in the tea-growing state of Assam in northeastern India, has gazed at the heavens and concluded that the "favorable position of various planets" favors Bush over Democrats Al Gore and Joseph I. Lieberman. (Bush is a Cancer; Gore's an Aries.) The Texas governor "will be elected as the president of U.S.A.," the Hindu seer has gone on record as predicting.

Whatever their database, British bookies have reached the same conclusion. In Britain, it is legal to bet on the outcome of Tuesday's election, and people have been doing so for about a year.

One firm, William Hill, has taken in the equivalent of $357,500 in wagers alone. To date, the single largest bet at Hill's has been 15,000 pounds--$21,600--on Vice President Gore. For British oddsmakers, the Democrat is considered the longer shot as the days until the election dwindle to less than a handful. At Ladbrokes, another of the country's major bookmakers, a $1 bet on Gore will bring $2.20 if he wins. But the payoff for a Bush victory will be only $1.62.

For the nearly 3.8 million private citizens who make up the American overseas diaspora, election day is a democratic rite they must participate in long distance, via write-in ballot, and through a sort of time warp that compels them to vote before the majority of their fellow citizens.

Currently shooting "The Gangs of New York," a Martin Scorsese film, at the fabled Cinecitta studios in Rome, Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz have already cast their ballots by mail--and they want people to know that they voted for Gore, unit publicist Larry Kaplan says.

Director Scorsese also used an absentee ballot but chose to keep his vote a secret, Kaplan says. "It was hard for him to get the ballot, but he did it, because he thinks the election is important," the publicist says. So do DiCaprio and Diaz--"They want to get the news out that they've voted so more people back home will vote too," Kaplan says.

In Tokyo, Richard Berger, an American who handles public relations for a Japanese electronics company, admits to feeling "quite a bit of guilt" because he forgot to apply for his mail-in ballot in time. According to a fact sheet handed out by U.S. embassies worldwide, some states require a voter to make a request 60 days in advance.

"From out here, it's kind of hard to get a feeling for what's going on," Berger says. "You can see how a lot of voters see [the choice] as the lesser of two evils--with one the bumbling idiot and the other looking like a heartless, calculating Washington insider."

Anne Patterson, a New York attorney living in London, is among the voters who aren't wild about the choice before them. An independent who normally votes Democratic, she reports: "I have my absentee ballot here, and I don't know what to do. I know I'm not going to vote for Bush, but I can't get myself to color in the Gore circle."

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