Protest votes transmit message of deep unease

March 29, 1992|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- One of the most stunning measures of voter dissatisfaction in this surprising election year has now reached seven figures: the 1.1 million calls H. Ross Perot has received since announcing he might run for president.

Even if the billionaire's supporters don't get him on the ballot in November, they've made the point: A lot of people aren't happy with the presidential candidates now running.

This is a year of voter protest. And each set of presidential and congressional primaries yields new evidence the recession isn't the only cause.

Polls and interviews with voters show many Americans believe that their nation is in a chronic economic decline and that their government isn't doing anything about it. Their concern over this feeds anxiety that has been building for some time, because of issues such as the deficit, the savings and loan debacle, Wall Street excesses in the 1980s and, most recently, the congressional rubber-check scandal, according to analysts and politicians.

These streams of discontent are converging at the voting booth, producing what three months ago would have seemed unthinkable results: Patrick J. Buchanan's unexpectedly large vote in the New Hampshire primary; Jerry Brown beating Democratic front-runner Bill Clinton in Connecticut last week; incumbent congressmen losing primaries in Maryland and Illinois.

Now comes talk of Mr. Perot's candidacy, which, if it had been broached in January, probably wouldn't have earned two inches in the newspaper. But the primary results of the past six weeks -- and the volume of calls MCI officials say has been made to Mr. Perot's toll-free numbers -- now make the ridiculous seem reasonable.

If his supporters can collect enough signatures to get him on the ballot in all 50 states, Mr. Perot says he'll run as an independent in the fall to help set Washington straight. It's this message -- that "our system of government doesn't work" -- that has people in many states, including Maryland, volunteering their time to collect signatures.

Most analysts don't think the Perot effort will amount to anything. But it's making them look more closely at what's turned the American voter, a sometimes docile creature, into an unpredictable bucking bronco.

What disturbs voters

"The pop version is there is one big ball of dissatisfaction, and it's a little more complicated than that," says Steven J. Rosenstone, program director at the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan.

There's broad agreement that the recession is a major catalyst of voter antipathy, as usually happens when an election year coincides with economic misery. What's different this time is all the other sources of public unease.

"The recession has crystallized previous vague anxieties and discontents into deep worry and even anger about the state of the country," says William A. Galston of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland College Park. People are experiencing "what might be called a triple squeeze," part economic, part political in the sense that "Jerry Brown is talking about," and part cultural; parents feel "contemporary culture is stacked against parents who want to raise their children safely."

"So if you put these three squeezes together, none of them is a short-term concern. They have been building up for some time," says Mr. Galston, an occasional Clinton campaign adviser.

Earl Black, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina, says Mr. Perot is "tapping something."

"There's a lot of frustration across the board. And something like the check-bouncing scandal is like a jolt of electricity through the political system, because it's something just about every voter can relate to the rules they have applied to themselves."

J. Bradford Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Opinion Research of Columbia, Md., has polled around the country and sees a pattern.

"It's pretty obvious there's a protest element in all of this. We just did a poll in California for a TV station out there, taking Bush, Buchanan, Brown and Clinton, and every one had personal negatives between 37 and 49 percent."

Feeling the heat

Voters have been making their views felt in both presidential and congressional races, although the message isn't always clear.

In the presidential race, some send a signal by not voting; others vote for Mr. Brown or Mr. Buchanan, not to elect them so much as to register a protest.

The congressional primaries already have produced several examples of anti-incumbent sentiment. In Illinois, two-term Democratic Sen. Alan J. Dixon and two representatives were retired by primary challengers. Longtime Maryland Rep. Beverly B. Byron, also a Democrat, met the same fate.

"Just how much of a change this discontent or anger is going to be able to effect in 1992 has yet to be seen," Mr. Galston says. "There are already signs that the turnover in the House of Representatives will be in three figures, which would make it the biggest turnover since 1974," when revulsion over Watergate helped bring in 91 new members.

Larry Hugick, managing editor of the Gallup Poll, says surveys indicate that only 31 percent of the public believes most members should be re-elected. But he cautions that most of the anger is directed at the institution. More than half of the public, 56 percent, believes their own representative should be returned.

This is some consolation to incumbents, including Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat who faces a race in a newly redrawn congressional district.

"Do I think everybody in office will get thrown out? No, I don't," he says. "Even angry voters are not indiscriminate voters."

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