Just a week before the election, an epidemic has broken out. The nation’s campaign press is in the throes of X-factor fever. It’s hard to stamp out, because just when you think you’ve isolated one strain, another springs up. Indeed, it takes a different form with every reporter.

Consider:

“New Voters are ‘X-factor’ of election” proclaims USA Today. Reporter Susan Page writes:

These get-off-the-bench voters could be a decisive factor in the election, and they introduce an unpredictable element in a close race. There probably will be more of them than usual: Fifty-two percent of those who didn’t vote in 2000 say they are almost certain to go to the polls this year — though only half of them meet the survey criteria to be identified as “likely voters.”

And she produces her expert:

“It’s the X-factor of this campaign,” says Donald Green, a political scientist at Yale University who co-wrote a new book on turnout, Get Out the Vote! “The question on everyone’s mind is whether this massive voter registration and now mobilization campaign is going to bear fruit.”

Forget the new voters, says Deborah Orin of the New York Post. “The World Series adds a big ‘X-factor’ in the race,” writes Orin. “Some analysts say Republicans are more likely than Democrats to watch the games (except in Boston), and less likely to talk to phone pollsters on weekend game days.”

But wait: The real X-factor is Ralph Nader, not Curt Schilling. That’s according to Chris Graham of the Augusta, Va., Free Press, who writes: “With the race in Virginia between George Bush and Democrat John Kerry running closer than expected, a Nader candidacy could be seen as an X-factor that could aid the president in winning the state’s 13 electoral votes.”

No, not Nader, it’s undecided women, according to the Newark, N.J. Star-Ledger (registration required), which recently offered a profile under this headline: “Meet the X-factor: Undecided women. Mighty bloc of voters has yet to rate its priorities in year of war and economic uncertainty.”

And a pollster quoted by the Knoxville [Tenn.] News Sentinel pegs (registration required) cell-phone users as the “X-factor.”

All this sounds suspiciously like an earlier outbreak of the dreaded “Swing Voter Disease,” which Campaign Desk has labored mightily to eradicate.

The cure? A healthy dose of skepticism about the X-factor of the moment, and a good night’s sleep. After all, tomorrow there’ll be a new X-factor, waiting for you in the morning papers.

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.