By Robert G. Kaiser Washington Post Service
WASHINGTON - For one group of political scientists who study U.S. elections, Campaign 2000 is effectively over. And the winner is Vice President Al Gore, narrowly but clearly. Or so their mathematical formulas conclude. Seven forecasts by academic analysts were to be presented Thursday to the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association here. Six of the seven foresee Mr. Gore winning between 52.3 and 55.4 percent of the votes cast for the two major-party candidates: Mr. Gore and George W. Bush. The seventh says Mr. Gore will win 60.3 percent of the major-party vote. All agree that other candidates will not affect the final result.
These models have proven highly accurate in the past. Their authors have applied them retrospectively to every election since 1948 or 1952 and found that most of them foresaw the final result of all but the closest elections. Several of the formulas have repeatedly been more accurate than even election-eve public opinion polls.
Preliminary projections by the same scholars were reported in The Washington Post in May, when they were substantially at variance with public opinion polls that put Mr. Bush ahead of Mr. Gore. The latest projections, based on more recent statistics, have slightly narrowed the predicted margin of a Gore victory, but not by much. Although each model is based on different factors, all combine a measurement of public opinion this summer with a measurement of the strength of the economy or the public's assessment of its economic well-being. The forecasters all agree that these fundamentals are the most powerful forces shaping election results.
Larry Bartels, a Princeton University political scientist who is not one of the forecasters, said the prognosticators ''serve a very useful purpose by focusing attention on the most crucial factors influencing the outcome of presidential elections: the state of the country and the state of the economy.'' Emphasizing these, Mr. Bartels added, ''strikes me as a valuable antidote to the press's overwhelming focus on candidates' personalities, campaign tactics and other 'unique,' campaign-specific factors which are more interesting to write about but much less important to the outcome of the election.''
Mr. Bartels's comment summarizes the difference between the scholars, who rely on mathematics, and the political reporters and politicians, who focus on the details of an electoral campaign and believe they are crucial to the final result.
''The outcome of a presidential election can be accurately predicted based on factors that are known well before the official campaign gets under way,'' said Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University. ''Despite the time, effort and money devoted to campaigning, there is very little that the candidates can do during September and October to alter the eventual outcome of a presidential election.''
Mr. Abramowitz's model, using a complex mathematical formula, combines economic growth in the first half of the election year, the popularity of the incumbent president on July 1 and the number of terms the incumbent party has been in power. This year his formula predicts that Mr. Gore will win 53.2 percent of the major-party vote, after docking the Democrat about 4 percent for the fact that he is trying to keep his party in office for a third term.
Mr. Abramowitz says history shows that staying in office for a third or fourth term is difficult.