WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Barely ten weeks since the official start of the 1992 presidential nominating process in Iowa, the preference of a large number of eligible voters for America's next leader already seems to be in: None of the Above.
Poll after poll shows that a significant segment of the electorate wishes that other candidates were running in both parties. The most recent survey by the Times Mirror Center for The People and The Press, for example, found fully two-thirds of all voters polled said they were unhappy with the choices available to them.
In primary after primary since New Hampshire, the turnout has been abysmally low. According to Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, after a record high of 41 percent of eligible voters in New Hampshire, turnout has plunged 11.8 percent nationally through the most recent primaries in New York, Wisconsin and Kansas, and 18.4 percent on the Democratic side. Only 7.16 percent of eligible Democrats in New York voted, Mr. Gans says.
And then there is the prospect of the independent candidacy of H. Ross Perot, clearly a commentary on voter dissatisfaction with what the parties have wrought.
Why is it that the regular-party choices are so unattractive for many voters that so many aren't voting, and so many of those who do are pulling the levers with one hand while holding their noses with the other?
One answer, concerning the Democratic Party, may be that its most appealing and best-known figures -- Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, Senators Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, Bill Bradley of New Jersey, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Sam Nunn of Georgia and others -- have elected to sit out 1992.
But in today's rough-and-tumble politics, with negative tactics and intensive press scrutiny the order of the day, few politicians can hope to look as good as they do on the sidelines once they get into the game. This year, in the prevailing anti-politics mood, there is no assurance that any of these non-starters would be faring much better than those who offered themselves to the voters.
On the Republican side, after all, the party is running its obvious and best-known active politician, President Bush, and although he is winning each Tuesday there is evidence of considerable nose-holding among the GOP faithful as well and, according to ** Gans, a national turnout falloff of 4 percent. Challenger Patrick J. Buchanan, after a flurry in New Hampshire and few other early-voting states, has also been ruled unacceptable by overwhelming numbers of Republicans.
The tone of the campaign clearly has been a major contributory )) factor to the voter turnoff. In both parties, it has been marked by personal sniping among the contenders and from the news media firing rounds of "character" allegations, with Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas the prime but not only target. Issues that were getting considerable attention in the early going, such as national health care, job training and opportunity, environmental and education reform, have been drowned out in the noisy cross-fire.
Nevertheless, in the short span of three months, the presidential field has been reduced for all practical purposes from nine more-or-less prominent contenders -- six Democrats and three Republicans -- to the two likely nominees, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush, with Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Buchanan now serving essentially as weekly punching bags for them.
In that time, the hopefuls in the two parties have raced from one week to another, from one region of the country to another and back again in a frenetic pursuit of votes, at a pace which has taxed the endurance and the concentration of voters as well as of the harried candidates. Even in the absence of all the negative clutter of the 1992 campaign, the candidates' task of getting their messages through would have been daunting.
Only Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton have had the money to sustain a presence on paid television from the start of the process to the present, and the television networks from the outset have cut back appreciably on their coverage, failing to provide the kind and scope of voter information of which their medium is capable. Nor has the public seemed to be in much mood to listen, revolted by the reports of congressional check-bouncing and pay-raising that have tarnished all politics.
The situation, in sum, cries out for a better way for presidential candidates to offer themselves to the voters that will enable them to present their substantive proposals in an atmosphere more conducive to serious consideration by those voters.
For openers, the current 100-yard -- to the nomination must somehow be slowed (but not lengthened) to give candidates ample time to sell themselves and their ideas, and to give voters adequate time to make informed judgments about them. And second, money should not be allowed to be the winnower of candidacies to the extent it is today.