Of the Bush administration, including the...

SOME MEMBERS

November 12, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

SOME MEMBERS of the Bush administration, including the president himself, believe that 11th hour Iran-contra stories damaging to the president affected the campaign, perhaps determining the outcome of the election.

Other Republicans have said that if the president had only been more effective in the first two debates, the outcome of the election might have been different. Still others say if the Bush campaign had stuck to attacking Bill Clinton as a tax-increaser throughout September and October, he would have done better.

Well, maybe, but maybe not. I've never believed in the dread and fabled October Surprise. I don't believe debates matter. I don't even believe in campaigns. (Except in the sense of the Maine farmer in the old joke. Asked if he believed in Baptism, he replied, "God, yes! I've seen it done!" I believe campaigns occur, I just don't believe they determine elections.)

George Bush was behind at the traditional beginning of the campaign, Labor Day. The first Gallup Poll after the holiday (conducted Sept. 10-11) showed him losing the two-candidate vote (Ross Perot was not a candidate then) by 58.2-41.8 percent. Bush got 46.1 percent of the two-party vote on Nov. 3.

If you believe Gallup and believe in campaigns, then you would have to say Bush's was more effective than Clinton's. He gained 4.3 percentage points. In any event, the campaign did not affect the outcome. Clinton was ahead in the starting blocks and Clinton won at the tape.

That 4.3 points is a lot. In 1988 Gallup had Bush ahead of Michael Dukakis 54.4-45.6 percent as of Sept. 11, not counting undecideds. On Election Day, Bush won 53.9-46.1 percent. Dukakis gained 0.5 of a percentage point. In 1984 Ronald Reagan led Walter Mondale among decideds on Sept. 10 by 61.3-38.7 percent. Reagan won 59.2-40.8 percent. Dukakis gained 1.9 points.

These are the norm. In only one of the last 11 presidential elections -- 1980's -- is there evidence to suggest the campaign changed public opinion enough to matter.

(On Sept. 14, 1960 Gallup showed Richard Nixon ahead of John F. Kennedy 50.5-49.5 among decideds. Kennedy won with 50.1 percent of the two-party vote to Nixon's 49.9. That's the official count, giving Kennedy all 318,303 of Alabama's Democratic vote. But six of the state's 11 Democratic electors were not for Kennedy. Subtracting 6/11ths of the Alabama popular vote puts Nixon ahead nationally.)

In 1980 there is evidence that there was a large (double-digit) shift producing a winner. President Jimmy Carter and Reagan were dead even on Labor Day. Reagan won by 10 percentage points. The only other double-digit gainers were Gerald Ford in 1976, George McGovern in 1972 and Hubert Humphrey in 1968, losers three.

So why have campaigns? Am I saying not to? No. They have their uses. They sell newspapers (I hope). They entertain the public. They educate the candidates, and, in a sense, legitimize the winner's agenda.

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