Incumbent's edge shines after a successful summit ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

June 22, 1992|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The next opinion polls you read are likely to show President Bush has improved his position in relation to independent candidate Ross Perot and Democrat Bill Clinton. Such a gain is routine when any president is engaged in highly visible foreign policy negotiations, as Bush has been with President Boris Yeltsin of Russia.

Indeed, a gain in such circumstances is so automatic it occurs even when things go sour in those negotiations. Politicians with long memories have not forgotten how then President Lyndon B. Johnson shot up in the Gallup Poll immediately after a disastrous -- for the United States -- summit meeting at Glassboro, N.J., with the then Soviet leader Aleksei Kosygin.

It is also axiomatic that, barring some continuing crisis, gains in the polls based on foreign policy issues are flimsy and temporary. And that was never more apparent than in the way President Bush has plunged in the past 15 months from the dizzying heights he achieved immediately after the war with Iraq. The first question in politics remains: What have you done for me lately?

What the conventional wisdom doesn't measure, however, is another factor in presidential politics that is closely related to foreign and defense issues and could benefit President Bush in November -- what might be called the risk factor.

It can be stated this way: When the voters are being asked to choose a challenger against an incumbent president, they seem to recognize that there is an element of risk in turning away from the known quantity to someone they are just coming to know.

Analyses of polls in 1976, for example, showed that concern was a clear element in Jimmy Carter's narrow victory over President Gerald Ford despite the fact he had been leading by as much as 30 percent early in the year. Carter had run a strong campaign and Ford's had been plagued by gaffes, but there was still a reluctance to turn him out.

Applied to this year's campaign, what this factor means is that if the race becomes extremely close, Bush might survive on the doubts among voters about taking a chance with a new leader, particularly when the options are a governor of a small Southern state and an independent Texas billionaire.

At the moment, Ross Perot seems to be such a runaway political phenomenon that it is tempting to conclude the old rules don't apply to him. That has clearly been the case in the past few months.

But even Ronald Reagan in 1980 recognized that he was seen as a potential risk against an unpopular incumbent, Carter. Asked in June of that year what he needed to do to win the presidency, Reagan replied: "I have to convince people that I'm not a combination of Ebenezer Scrooge and the Mad Bomber."

Reagan managed to dispel the doubts over the ensuing three months, most notably in a late-September nationally televised debate in Baltimore against an independent candidate, John B. Anderson, that President Carter refused to join. Although Anderson conducted himself well enough so that the debate was no worse than a draw for him, the real significance of the event was that Reagan proved enormously reassuring to those who had been inclined to support him but concerned about whether he was too much of a risk. The result was a sharp drop in Anderson's support and a corresponding rise in that for the Republican candidate.

The situation this year is, of course, quite different. The Cold War is history, so there is less reason to worry about whose finger will be on the nuclear button in the next four years, a prime concern ever since World War II. And there are other issues -- the economy, health care, education, abortion rights -- that seem to have more relevance than the ability to get along with Boris Yeltsin. There is also a skepticism bordering on cynicism in the electorate that has never been so obvious or pervasive as it seems to be today.

But the pictures of the president concluding a successful and highly significant negotiation to reduce the most dangerous missiles may be more than just an element in a temporary rise in the opinion polls. They can be evidence that the incumbent is at least a safe choice for another term.

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