Political outsiders' initial shine tends to tarnish quickly But Perot reflects deep-seated anger among the public

May 08, 1992|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- They've been racing to sign her petitions, scribbling their names with the gusto and fervor of a people rallying to "save themselves," says Joan Vinson, Maryland coordinator of the Draft Ross Perot campaign. She calls it a "second American revolution."

But even this longtime Perot friend and now supporter notes how little voters seem to know about the all-but-declared candidate they've been pledging their allegiance to -- and how little that seems to matter.

"They usually say, 'I don't know where he stands on a lot of the issues, but I've certainly found a person I can believe in,' " says Mrs. Vinson.

As many as four of every 10 people who say they would vote for Mr. Perot if the election were held today admit they know little or nothing about what he stands for, according to a national poll being released today by the Times Mirror Center for The People and The Press.

So far this campaign year, a candidate's lack of political experience, lack of carefully outlined positions, lack of specific answers and lack of high profile has not necessarily added up to a lack of votes. In fact, in some cases, such deficits have helped deliver the votes.

Last week, women's activist Lynn Yeakel toppled the conventions of Pennsylvania politics by winning the Democratic primary and, thus, the chance to unseat Republican Sen. Arlen ** Specter in the fall -- all with limited political experience and confessions that she hadn't yet thought out her positions on certain issues. And Mr. Perot, a Texas billionaire, is well on his way to a third-party candidacy for the presidency, buoyed by the signatures of hundreds of thousands, many of whom haven't a clue how he'd deal with the deficit or the environment or Japan.

In this year of the protest vote, when every long shot from former California Gov. Jerry Brown to TV pundit Patrick J. Buchanan has had his day, however fleeting, as a "phenomenon," the traditional political campaign has taken a back seat to voter anger.

"Anger overrides all other concerns," says University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato. "When people are really angry, when the electorate is in a surly mood, this is the result. When people are happy, they look for experience and are inclined toward incumbents."

But even if the surly mood continues all the way to Election Day, few political strategists expect the easy ride such protest candidates have enjoyed to last. As November nears, they say, voters will ask more questions, demand more specifics and hold unorthodox candidates to a stiffer standard.

"Right now, voters see in Perot an empty tablet, and they can write whatever they want on that tablet," says Michael McCurry, campaign consultant for Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, who dropped out of the presidential race. "But as he's taken more seriously, voters will start to ask, 'What do I get if I buy this thing called Perot?' "

Already, Mr. Perot has felt pressure to deliver more than "We will do it, do it, do it, do it," in response to questions about his governing, and he has detoured from campaigning to develop more detailed positions.

"The very things that make these candidates attractive as protest candidates -- no experience, naive, sometimes wacky ideas, no detailed policy positions -- become problems once they're judged as serious contenders," says political consultant William Schneider.

For one thing, say political scientists, general elections -- which generate a larger, more diverse turnout -- are not the vehicles for protest voting that primaries are. "People know there's no second vote," says Georgetown University political science professor Stephen Wayne.

In fact, a "counter current" to voters' initial tendency to be seduced by political outsiders is their ultimate discomfort with change, says Stephen Worchel, head of psychology at Texas A&M University.

"When it comes down to pulling the lever, what people say now and the way they act later on may not be completely congruent," says Mr. Worchel. "We're attracted to the underdog, the white knight who rides in to save the day. It's in our myths that this is going to happen. But we can't quite stick with them and push them into office.

"When it comes right down to it, change is kind of frightening."

That's why incumbents have such an advantage and why independent candidates have rarely succeeded in our system, he says.

But while such conventional wisdom bodes ill for this year's "outsiders," there are wild cards -- such as women's anger at Mr. Specter's grilling of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings and Mr. Perot's millions -- that could make such wisdom virtually worthless.

"The only real difference between Ross Perot and all the other [past] independent candidates is that Perot has enough money to outspend both major party candidates combined -- and appears willing to spend it," says Mr. Sabato. "That's an element people underestimate."

Although he believes that "people usually return to party mores by November," he's reluctant to make any predictions about outcomes this year.

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