Wrong-track warning signs ahead for Democrats?

August 21, 1996|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- There are many ways the Democrats can rationalize the better-than-expected bounce Bob Dole has enjoyed in the opinion polls taken immediately after the Republican convention.

But there are some undercurrents in the polls that President Clinton and his supporters should see as warning signs of potential vulnerability in the general election campaign.

That Mr. Dole scored heavily, however transitorily, is unquestioned. One television network survey shows Mr. Clinton's margin cut essentially in half, to about 12 percent. CNN found the president's lead had declined from 22 points to 7 points over the last three weeks. A poll made for Newsweek magazine had the contest essentially even immediately after the convention.

The Democrats can say there is nothing surprising in the gain because Mr. Dole has had the center of the political stage to himself for two weeks now. And everyone in the politics business knows that many poll respondents are simply giving back the name that first comes to mind in such surveys. So, they say, wait until President Clinton has his time in the spotlight in Chicago next week and watch the numbers bounce back.

What matters, the Democrats can argue with obvious validity, is what the polls show after the conventions have been forgotten and voters are confronted with their final choice for president.

But some of what the poll-takers call the "internals" in the polls suggest the president is not as unassailable as he appeared to be two or three weeks ago.

One problem for the White House is that the president's personal standing with the electorate has never matched the approval ratings for his performance in office.

Character questions

A significant minority of Americans have doubts about Mr. Clinton's character and priorities. And he has never elicited zealous support from a large segment of the electorate. There are few Democrats willing to walk through a wall for Bill Clinton.

What this means, in the language of the political strategists, is that Mr. Clinton's support is "soft" -- meaning subject to change later in the process as the campaign develops.

Perhaps the most ominous finding of recent polls, however, has been a continuing anomaly about Americans' view of the future.

For years poll-takers have been asking the same question in one study after another: "Is the country generally headed in the right direction or off on the wrong track?"

Among political professionals, the "wrong-track number" has always been considered a key indicator in measuring the political health of an incumbent.

When things are going well, that number can be 20 percent or lower. When it reaches 50 to 60 percent, there is reason for incumbents to worry about their survival. If it reaches 70 or higher, as it did when George Bush was running for re-election four years ago, the incumbent is probably going to lose.

The wrong-track number ordinarily is closely correlated with economic indicators -- that is, when the economy is healthy, the wrong-track number declines. But these days the number is running 55 to 60 percent in most polls despite the fact that the economy is perceived as healthy after almost four years of Mr. Clinton.

The poll-takers are baffled, but there are several inferences that might be drawn from the anomaly. The first is the possibility that the economic indicators no longer measure what Americans feel about their own situations.

Job insecurity

Despite the figures, it may be that many voters are frightened by "downsizing" in American industry -- meaning the permanent elimination of many jobs, particularly in middle management. Another concern may be the inability of many Americans to understand and accept the internationalization of the economy and the fact that their jobs may be affected by events far beyond their control.

Another, more intriguing possibility is that the perception the country is on "the wrong track" may reflect conditions that don't have anything to do with the economy. Republican conservatives are arguing that a decline in family values is the reason so many Americans are uneasy about the future of the nation.

That is an argument Bob Dole seems to have embraced. And if it turns out to be the explanation, the Republican candidate could prove to be a far more formidable opponent to Bill Clinton than anyone expected just a few weeks ago.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 8/21/96

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