Is doing worse in the polls at this stag...

PRESIDENT CLINTON

May 20, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

PRESIDENT CLINTON is doing worse in the polls at this stag of his administration than any previous president -- except President Hubert Horatio Humphrey.

I know, I know, Humphrey was never elected president. But he almost was, in 1968, in circumstances somewhat like those of 1992. Had he been, I believe that in the spring of 1969 he would have been in the same kind of trouble with the American people that Clinton is now.

HHH was the Democratic nominee in a three-candidate race in 1968. Just as Clinton was in 1992. The third party candidate then, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, had a loyal, somewhat fanatic following. Just like Ross Perot in 1992.

Wallace's hot button issue was desegregation. In November, Hubert Humphrey got 42.7 percent of the popular vote, Wallace got 13.5 percent, and Republican Richard Nixon got 43.4 percent.

The electoral vote was closer: 301 for Nixon, 191 for Humphrey and 46 for Wallace. Had HHH got 115,000 of Nixon's votes in California (only about 1.5 percent of the state total vote) and 45,000 more in Ohio (only about 1.2 percent), he would have won the election.

Wallace was a Democrat, but almost all his voters would have gone to Nixon in a two-candidate race. A post-election study broke the Wallace vote down as 80-20 for Nixon. So that close three-man race would have been a comfortable Nixon popular victory of about 54-46 percent in a two-man race.

President Humphrey would definitely have had a problem on his hands. By the end of his first 100 days in office, he would probably be just about where Bill Clinton is today. Clinton is stuck at 45 percent approval rating -- a figure that is very close to the percentage of the popular vote he got last fall (Clinton 43, George Bush 38, Perot 19).

With Wallace and the Republicans sniping at him, HHH might even have been lower.

Now, President Nixon had no such problem. Wallace personally was unhappy with him, but he could not keep his bloc intact. A Gallup Poll trial heat pitting Nixon, Wallace and the most popular Democrat in the spring of 1969 came out Nixon 52 percent, Wallace 10, Sen. Edward Kennedy 33. Wallace had lost about a '' fourth of his vote to Nixon, who made a blatant pitch for conservative Southerners.

Of the 19 percent of the vote that Clinton's Wallace -- Perot -- got last year, more probably came out of the George Bush column than the Bill Clinton column, but not a whole lot more. It certainly wasn't 80-20.

Like Nixon appeasing Wallace, Clinton has tried to appease Perot, pushing for deficit reduction and campaign reform -- Perot's hot buttons -- but to little avail. Perot has gained votes.

In a U.S. News & World Report trial heat last week, Clinton, Perot and Bob Dole finished 35-35-25, with Dole at 25. Perot has held all his own 1992 voters, plus taken a lot from the Democrats and a lot more from the Republicans.

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