For a change, issues may swing hard election fight

September 05, 2000|By Patrick Gonzales and Carol Arscott

ANNAPOLIS -- Let's assume for a moment that the 2000 presidential election will be decided on the issues.

Don't laugh, we're not trying to be funny.

What we have seen in our polling in the presidential race in the past six months suggests that the issues most important to voters will shift during a campaign and that the electorate will change its votes based on which candidate is doing the best job addressing those issues.

In our latest Maryland-wide poll, Democrat Al Gore leads Republican George W. Bush by a healthy 51 percent to 36 percent. Given Maryland's demographics and electoral history, this isn't surprising.

Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1 here, and Republicans haven't won a statewide election since 1988, when Mr. Bush's father pulled off a narrow upset of Democrat Michael Dukakis.

But much can be learned about the national campaign by taking a closer look at the issues motivating Maryland voters. Maryland truly is "America in Miniature" in this regard.

In our February Maryland poll, saving Social Security, education and character were the top three responses as the most important issue in the national election. Fiscal issues -- paying down the national debt, cutting taxes, and maintaining the current economic condition occupied the second tier. Rounding out the list were foreign policy, crime and campaign finance reform.

What's missing from this list? Health care, HMOs and prescription drugs. Health care concerns didn't register in our February survey, but now are the most important issue to 15 percent of Marylanders.

In the six months since the primary season, Mr. Gore's issues have galvanized voters: saving Social Security still occupies first place and the importance of continuing our economic prosperity has tripled; sentiment for tax cuts remains sparse. Education remains an important issue for Maryland voters, while "character," supposedly a Gore guilt-by-association weakness, has fallen by the wayside.

What is being illustrated here? The simple fact that campaigns do matter. The advantage belongs to the candidate who is in control of the debate. Low-income seniors had just as much trouble buying prescription drugs six months ago as they do now, but Mr. Gore wasn't issuing daily challenges to Mr. Bush to deliver his own plan, as he is today.

Mr. Bush is competing mightily for education voters, but his planned two-week education blitz was muffled by these verbal challenges from Mr. Gore. Moreover, Mr. Bush stepped on his own message with a brief foray into the arena of America's military readiness and, all the while, defense and foreign policy barely register on the radar screen.

For Mr. Bush to make it close in Maryland, the terms of the debate will have to change between now and Election Day. The booming economy is simply not debatable and has many voters ready to affirm the status quo, giving traditional Democratic issues like Social Security, education and health care the chance to predominate. In the parlance of politics, these are known as "mommy" issues, and they are giving Mr. Bush a "gender-gap" problem -- he trails among women in Maryland by a large margin.

Social Security reform might end up as a Bush plus. Our polling shows that even Maryland's traditionally liberal electorate is open to modification, with a 49 percent plurality saying they favor a plan involving partial privatization.

With both major candidates having emerged from their party's conventions largely unscathed, the presidential campaign, for the first time in the last two elections, isn't over before it ever got started. Perhaps the issues really will matter this time around.

Patrick Gonzales and Carol Arscott are independent pollsters based in Annapolis.

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