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The only drawback of the team's encouraging analysis was that Yeltsin took it too much to heart. "When he said he was confident that he'd win the election outright in the first round by capturing 50% of the vote, it told us again that you can only lead politicians so far," says Dresner. "The only real threat to victory was a low turnout, and Yeltsin helped depress it by giving voters a reason to take the day off. If they thought Yeltsin's victory was a done deal, as he himself had indicated, why bother voting?"
The other crisis had been percolating for some time. The President's three democratic opponents had long talked of coalescing behind one or the other of them, and the speculation reached a fever pitch at the beginning of May. Had "they managed that," says Gorton, "it could really have killed us." A good deal of time was devoted to strategizing about how Yeltsin could stop the so-called "third force" from emerging. The two key third-force players were Grigori Yavlinsky, the leading democrat in the race, and the war hero Alexander Lebed. The team advised Yeltsin to woo his opponents publicly in order to boost their already inflated egos. "We thought that once they enjoyed the limelight, neither would be willing to drop out in favor of the other," Shumate explains. "Having them all in the race prevented the rise of a single, democratic alternative to Yeltsin."
Keeping Lebed as an independent candidate was considered especially critical--unless he dropped out of the first round in favor of Yeltsin, which seemed highly unlikely. "All the data suggested that if Lebed withdrew to join a third-force coalition, his supporters would defect to Zyuganov," says Gorton. Thus on May 5, the Americans wrote that "Lebed would be the strongest third-force threat, and we believe paying a significant price for his support would be well worth it." The Americans didn't know that other Yeltsin aides were already reportedly aiding Lebed financially and logistically. "All we did advise," says Dresner, "is that if and when Lebed joined with Yeltsin, he not be given a government position until after the election was decided. Our polling showed that about 2% of voters would shy away from Yeltsin if that happened. On that point, we were ignored." Lebed won a startling 15% of the first-round vote, and in a dramatic move, Yeltsin almost immediately thereafter appointed him his national security adviser. According to an exit poll, 56% of those who voted for Lebed in the first round voted for Yeltsin in the runoff."
June 16 was a horrific day. As the first-round vote approached, Yeltsin's support softened. It had been built up, virtually a point at a time, over three months. It was eroding now as Lebed gained. The Americans' private polls indicated only a 5-point lead for Yeltsin over Zyuganov. The two candidates who received the most votes in the first round would go to the runoff, and Yeltsin was almost certain to make the cut. Finishing second to Zyuganov would be a stunning blow to his momentum. A low turnout could produce exactly that result, and the first indications signaled a turnout below expectations.