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May the Best, or Tallest, Man Win

Forget the usual polls. There are less common predictors of election day outcomes--hemlines and Halloween masks, for instance--that can be eerily accurate.

October 30, 2000|GEOFF BOUCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The presidential polls this year are like politicians--you can find one that says whatever you want to hear. With a tight race and contradictory results, it's easy to dismiss it all as fuzzy math. So maybe it's wiser to leave the election predictions to other, more "scientific" methods.

Like the direction the stock market and women's hemlines are headed.

Or sales figures for Halloween masks and boxer shorts.

Or even the win-loss record of the Los Angeles Lakers.

These variables from disparate corners of culture have one thing in common--each is being used as a bellwether of presidential politics. How accurate are they? You decide.

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Presidential Height Index: "PHI" for short. Since the advent of television in presidential races, the taller candidate has won every race except one. In 1976, 5-foot-9 Jimmy Carter toppled Gerald Ford, a former football player who stood a full 6-foot-2.

Maybe voters thought Ford was shorter--the stumble-prone leader certainly spent his share of time on the ground. This year, the PHI has Gore standing tall at 6-foot-1, a full 2 inches above Bush, who somehow missed out on that whole "everything is bigger in Texas" thing. Advantage: Gore.

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Dribble-Down Theory: The Lakers have won the NBA crown four times in previous election years, and each time a Republican took the White House--Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Toss in Dwight D. Eisenhower's win in 1952, when the then-Minnesota Lakers were champs, and you have an eerily precise indicator. And, as every Angeleno knows, this year the thunderous Shaquille O'Neal and gliding Kobe Bryant brought home NBA's Lawrence O'Brien Trophy (named after the late Democratic Party chairman who also served as commissioner of the sports league). Advantage: Bush.

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The Trick-or-Treat Doctrine: Costume merchants say there are some presidential insights hidden behind Halloween masks. Every election year, rubber masks of the major candidates hit the marketplace in the pivotal month of October, and retailers like Jon Madjoch of Buycostumes.com say, since 1980, the candidate that gets his face out there the most typically wins the White House.

This year? Madjoch and other mask merchants say the Bush mask has steadily outsold its Democratic rival, but there are two strange subplots here: Nixon is still the bestselling presidential mask, so, technically, he should win this election. Also, the Gore mask bears a marked resemblance to Reagan. We're not sure what that means, but it sure is spooky. Advantage: Bush.

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The Hemline Hypothesis: The rise and fall of women's hemlines is one of the more venerable barometers of the political climes. Rising hemlines have suggested a Democrat will win, less leg has meant the GOP has a leg up on the White House.

Thomas DiBacco, a professor emeritus of history at American University and the son of a seamstress, points out that the Republicans dominated in the 19th century when dresses swept the floor, and, during World War II, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt ruled as fabric shortages sent hemlines higher and higher.

Miniskirts took hold in the 1960s, when John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson reigned, but long dresses were back in vogue by the time Nixon was elected, DiBacco says.

And this year? Fashion commentator Mr. Blackwell tells us hemlines are "down and finally have settled reasonably at a good length; however miniskirts are still very healthy in a much younger age bracket." Advantage: Bush.

But Blackwell says the skirt predictor may be see-through. "I've never heard of skirt length predicting the president," he sniffed. "It's the stock market, that's how you predict."

Ah, of course, which brings us to. . . .

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The Cash Flow Corollary: Does a bear favor an elephant? A robust stock market is generally a strong sign that the incumbent party will win the day in November, says Yale Hirsch, the venerable historian for the "Stock Trader's Almanac."

"Sixteen times the incumbent has won, and in 14 of those elections the market rose between the last convention and Election Day," Hirsch notes. The two exceptions: 1948, when Harry S. Truman pulled off a late-surging upset, and 1956, when Russian tanks rolling in Hungary rattled the market. This year the market is down, but Hirsch compares it to the turmoil of 1948.

"With oil prices up and the Middle East exploding," he says, "I think it's thrown a monkey wrench into the usual reliable indicators." Still, the economy has enjoyed great growth during the Democratic reign of President Clinton, he and others point out, and voters tend to follow the money. Advantage: Gore.

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The Eyes Wide Shut Theorem: The presidential race may not come down to who blinks first, but who blinks most.

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