A Sneak Preview of the Next Presidential Election

September 16, 1994|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Might the Virginia Senate race in 1994 be a political model for America in 1996? Some recent news items offer grounds for speculation.

Consider: The Virginia contest attracted four candidates. The Democratic incumbent, Sen. Charles Robb, son-in-law of President Lyndon B. Johnson, has been an authentic New Democrat, trying to move his party to the center from the left. The Republican challenger is Oliver North, seen as the darling of the religious right and some conservatives. Both men have been involved in scandals that have put neon asterisks in the race.

Former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, the first elected black governor, mounted an independent campaign, trying to build a plurality from a black base. In the wake of discouraging polls, he dropped out of the race yesterday. Still running as an independent is former Republican gubernatorial candidate Marshall Coleman, seeking to attract moderates who are turned off by the rest of the field.

Now take a look at the national picture. There will be a Democrat running, probably the incumbent Bill Clinton, although a primary challenge in the Democratic Party is not out of the question. A recent CNN/Gallup poll shows Mr. Clinton's approval rating down to 39 percent, the lowest such rating at this point of a presidency since the advent of modern polling. (Challenge a sitting president seeking re-election? Remember, that's what Sen. Ted Kennedy did in 1980, confronting President Jimmy Carter.)

There will be a Republican candidate, most likely a conservative, of one stripe or another.

As in 1992 there may well be a third candidate, billionaire Ross Perot, picking up lots of disaffected voters, this time probably more from Democrats than Republicans. Mr. Perot recently announced that this year he will appear at a series of big political rallies sponsored by his organization, United We Stand America. It does not seem to be the act of a man no longer interested in shaping national politics.

And now Rev. Jesse Jackson has said that he is considering running as an Independent. Such a candidacy, like Governor Wilder's, would be built on an African-American voting base, but Mr. Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign in the Democratic primaries demonstrated that he can attract some very liberal white voters as well. (This is not the first time Mr. Jackson has publicly toyed with the idea of running for president as an independent -- all the while denouncing neo-conservative Democrats for not being ''real'' Democrats.)

Other names have surfaced as possible independent presidential candidates, including that of Gov. Lowell Weicker of Connecticut.

Now, until Mr. Perot's race in 1992 there was a simple analytical way of dealing with candidates numbering more than the normal two from the major parties. Experts said that by Election Day voters would know who the serious candidates were and not ''waste a vote'' on a sure loser. Thus, George Wallace's vote shrank as Election Day approached in 1968; John Anderson's sank in 1980.

But in 1992 Mr. Perot's vote didn't diminish from pre-election polls -- it soared, and he ended up with 19 percent of the vote. Wasted vote or no wasted vote, many millions of Americans decided to vote for the man who said he could get under the hood and fix it all.

Well, suppose we had four candidates in 1996. In 1992, in a three-way race, Mr. Clinton only got 43 percent of the vote, and there are those who still stress that he is less than a majority president. (Although he did receive a solid win in the Electoral College.) Now, suppose for the sake of argument, that in 1996 there were a four-way race -- Bill Clinton, Ross Perot, Jesse Jackson and, say, Jack Kemp for the Republicans. And suppose the winner got only 35 percent of the vote, or, for that matter, 25.1 percent.

If no candidate gets a majority of the Electoral College, the choice is made in the House of Representatives among the top three contenders. Wonderful! The political institution the public has the least faith in -- Congress! -- would choose a very minority president! That's when political scientists start talking about ''legitimacy.''

Keep your eye on Virginia -- you may be seeing a rough sketch of the political presidential future.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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