All signs are pointing to a Clinton blowout ON POLITICS

Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

September 28, 1992|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- This fall's conventional wisdom has it that Gov. Bill Clinton's comfortable lead in the polls can't hold and that the presidential campaign is headed for a close finish on Nov. 3. That certainly has been the history of Democratic fortunes since the end of World War II.

But that history may well be blinding the political prognosticators from not accepting what their eyes are telling them now -- that barring some disclosure about Clinton that would put him into a tailspin, the Arkansas governor could win the 1992 election by the widest margin enjoyed by any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson 28 years ago.

The wild card that is Ross Perot could put a damper on that prospect if his presence on the ballot in all 50 states, and the game he is now playing, were to cut into Clinton's present strength. But if Perot proves to be a washout or have a split impact, Clinton could be headed for a Nov. 3 blowout.

The signs are not simply in the polls that place Clinton ahead of President Bush by anywhere from 10 to 20 percentage points. State-by-state calculations also have him far ahead in electoral votes, making notable inroads into the South, which has been cracked by only one Democrat, Jimmy Carter, since the LBJ landslide of 1964.

Just as indicative is Bush's travel schedule, concentrating into late September on shoring up his base in such places as Florida, Texas and other Dixie states that ought to be in a Republican incumbent's pocket by now. The longer a candidate is required to focus on his core constituency, the deeper the trouble he is likely to be in. The late campaign travels to key industrial states by Democratic losers such as Carter in 1980, Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988 were tip-offs of their impending fate.

It is not surprising, considering the political history since World War II, that observers have been wary about the prospects of a Democratic election blowout. In the last 44 years and 11 presidential elections -- ever since Harry Truman upset Thomas E. Dewey in 1948 -- the Democrats have won only four times. And in only one of those four did the Democratic nominee -- Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 against the hapless Barry Goldwater -- escape a squeaker. Truman in 1948, John Kennedy in 1960 and Jimmy Carter in 1976 all won by the skin of their teeth.

In the seven Republican victories in the same period, only one of them was close -- Richard M. Nixon's over Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968. When Democrats win they usually win by a nose; when Republicans win, they usually win going away.

In the three very close Democratic victories and the one close Democratic loss in this stretch, much depended on the Democrats' ability as the majority party to turn out their vote at the end. In 1968, Humphrey failed in large part because the split in his party over the Vietnam War kept many bitter Democrats on the fence until late in the campaign -- too late, it turned out.

In 1988 as well, Dukakis based his hopes on closing the gap at the end against Bush on Democratic voters "coming home" after their eight-year romance with Ronald Reagan. But rather than returning to the fold, many of these Reagan Democrats stuck with Reagan's political heir.

The predictions of a close election may derive to some degree from what might be called Deweyitis -- memories of how the pollsters and political prognosticators were burned in 1948 when Truman, well behind Dewey in all the polls, pulled a colossal upset and left the political wise guys with egg on their faces.

As a result, there is a reluctance among those of us who make a living trying to read the political tea leaves to accept what is staring us in the face. This is especially so because little more than a year ago the Democrats looked so dead in the water that their most prominent presidential prospects were running away from making a challenge to Bush.

But the fact that the economy has turned so sour, and that Bush is widely blamed for not doing anything about it even now, has made it near-impossible for him to run on his record. At the same time, his various attacks on Clinton have failed to draw much blood.

Incumbents aren't supposed to need debates, but increasingly it looks as though this one does, in the worst way.

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