CBS took a poll last week about the three leading...


April 30, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

CBS took a poll last week about the three leading presidentialcontenders. It asked voters if they were "favorable," "unfavorable," or "undecided" about them or had "not heard enough" about them to have an opinion.

Only 1 percent of the respondents had "not heard enough" about George Bush. Only 6 percent had not heard enough about Bill Clinton. But 55 percent had not heard enough about Ross Perot. So, naturally, CBS invited Perot on its Sunday show, "Face the Nation," thus performing its journalistic task of presenting an important unknown to the public.

But the show's host, Bob Schieffer, spent only about half the 30-minute show interviewing Perot. He spent the other half interviewing a panel of reporters, including Fred Barnes of the New Republic and Gwen Ifill of the New York Times.

Now, Fred and Gwen learned everything they know at The Sun and The Evening Sun, so you know they're tops, right? But isn't this a strange use of time? As much analysis, explanation and commentary as interviewing a man the public says it doesn't know? As someone who makes a living writing for an editorial page, I obviously have nothing against explaining things. But it seems to me that the trend away from reporting to opining has dTC hit a new high (low?) this year. Not only broadcasting but print is devoting more attention to journalists than to the politicians running for office.

F: Could this be why voting participation is falling off?

That CBS poll was interesting. Bush led Clinton 38 percent to 28 percent. But Perot got a solid 23 percent. If he can stay that high, look out, George! Look out, Bill!

Only one third-party or independent candidate in this century has gotten 23 percent of the vote. That was 80 years ago, when Theodore Roosevelt, who then had been out of office as president for four years, got 27.3 percent. Since then, the best any such candidate has been able to do was Robert LaFollette's 16.5 percent in 1928. George Wallace got 13.5 percent in 1968. And John Anderson got 6.6 percent in 1980.

John Anderson was at 23 percent in a Gallup Poll in the spring of 1980. Wallace was at 21 percent as late as the end of September of 1968. (No polling in 1912 and 1924.) So history suggests Perot will tail off. But history has no precedent for a billionaire who can compete with the major parties on spending.

Perot is more Wallace than Anderson. He has regional strength. A new Times Mirror Poll shows him and Bush nearly even (32 for Perot, 33 for the president) in California. A recent Texas Poll shows him ahead of Bush and Clinton in that state. He's also ahead in New Mexico.

Wallace carried five Southern states with 46 electoral votes. California and Texas have 86 electoral votes. Conventional wisdom has it that Perot hurts Clinton more than Bush. He does, percentage-wise and nationally. But the West is the Republican base. Without those 86 votes, Bush is in deep cactus.

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