All the money in the world may not do it

November 03, 1996|By Barry Rascovar

CAN MONEY BUY elections? You would think so from the $1.6 billion -- yes, billion -- being poured into the presidential campaign. And you would think so from the $1.02 million raised so far by Gov. Parris Glendening two years before his next race.

Yet it is doubtful that either Republican or Democratic spending on Tuesday's national election will alter the outcome. It is also doubtful that a record-setting fund-raising drive by Maryland's governor will deter potential Democratic foes.

No, in this age of cynicism and media awareness, money just doesn't count in political campaigns the way it used to. Previously, voters could be influenced by commercials for Bill Clinton (''the man from Hope''), Ronald Reagan (''Are you better off now than you were four years ago?'') and Jimmy Carter (''a president who feels your pain and who shares your dreams'').

No longer. The media gurus overdid it. They have so inundated us with hard-hitting, partisan ads that most folks tune out.

Moreover, the explosion of media outlets makes it increasingly difficult for consultants to target ads effectively. Besides, how many times can Bob Ehrlich and Connie DeJuliis call each other liars before the public starts to think all candidates are liars?

That's Bob Dole's big problem. He can't understand why folks aren't up in arms over Bill Clinton's ethical lapses and the Democrats' negative advertising. Maybe it's because the Republicans have had their share of ethical lapses and more than their share of negative advertising, too.

So while the two big parties spend an obscene amount on this presidential campaign, pollsters say most Americans made up their minds long ago -- before Labor Day, after following the two national conventions. The poll numbers haven't changed substantially since then -- no matter the amount spent on ads.

In Maryland, the futility of this approach ought to alert Governor Glendening. He can outspend opponents 10-1 on advertising and still get blown away. People are unlikely to give credence to what is said in these ads. They are cynical about office holders, especially one who has been enmeshed in controversies.

The polls sing a dirge

Mr. Glendening's favorable poll rating stands at 24 percent (it is 10 percent in one private poll taken in populous Montgomery County). That's the lowest rating of any U.S. governor. No amount of advertising can compensate.

No wonder Harford County Executive Eileen Rehrmann soon will declare her interest in running for governor. No wonder Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan is eagerly NTC looking at making a similar announcement. And House Speaker Casper Taylor. And Baltimore County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger.

Money won't scare off these potential candidates if the poll numbers continue to show weakness.

Neither will a gigantic Glendening campaign kitty frighten off Republican Ellen Sauerbrey, who lost in 1994 by just 6,000 votes, though she was vastly outspent. Disenchantment with the ethics of the incumbent and his catering to special-interest groups could hand Ms. Sauerbrey the election.

Ms. Sauerbrey knows she doesn't need to be ''the $10 million woman'' to win. She simply must moderate her more extreme conservative views, continue to speak softly and sweetly and reiterate the governor's failings.

Just look at the 1994 numbers. Mr. Glendening won because of huge margins (two out of every three votes) in the city of Baltimore and in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

Everywhere else, Ms. Sauerbrey won by landslide proportions (nearly six votes out of 10). Given Mr. Glendening's current unpopularity in Montgomery and his lukewarm support in P.G. and the city, Ms. Sauerbrey is sitting pretty.

Advertising bucks won't alter that outlook. Only a basic shift in the public's perception of the governor can change that. Yet so far, the governor's obsessive focus on fund-raising has diverted attention from his successes in office.

Just as Bill Clinton had to return to his core issue (it's still the economy, stupid) before his campaign took off, Parris Glendening has to ditch his persistent grubbing for campaign funds and instead focus on core ''quality of life'' issues -- progress on public safety, education, the environment and economic growth.

Millions poured into ads won't work next time. Ellen Sauerbrey understands this. Potential Democratic candidates are beginning to understand, too. But will Mr. Glendening get the message?

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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