Posted on November 02, 1992 in Washington Watch

As recently as one week ago the outcome of the U.S. election seemed certain. Bill Clinton’s lead appeared to be so insurmountable, especially in several key electoral states, that no political analyst I know could imagine a realistic scenario that could turn the election around for George Bush.

Now, at week’s end, one poll is showing Clinton’s lead at a mere one percent. Other polls also show that Clinton’s lead is slipping to somewhere between three and six percent over President Bush.

There are three main factors which account for this dramatic change of fortunes for the President. The first is the sudden rise and subsequent self-destruction of Ross Perot. One week ago Perot was riding high on what many said was his “winning” performance in the televised debates, and he was rising in the polls. For example, an October 18 poll showed Clinton at 48%, Bush at 34% and Perot at 15%. By October 24, that poll had changed to show 41% support for Clinton, 34% for Bush and 20% for Perot.

Then on Sunday October 25 and Monday October 26, in two amazing television performances, Perot revealed to the public the darker side of his personality. His ill-tempered hostility to those who disagree with him and his predisposition to believe in conspiracies were on public display on prime time. This image of instability was so in conflict with the professional, no-nonsense businessman image that Perot had cultivated in his television advertising campaign that it stopped his rise in the polls and brought on some serious erosion in his support.

The interesting aspect of all this was that the polls showed that during his rise Perot was drawing voters from Clinton; but the voters who have abandoned him thus far seem not to be going to the Democrats. Clinton has stayed this week in the low 40% range while Perot plummeted to 16%, and Bush rose to between 35% and 40%.

The second factor is that, as the gap in the polls has closed, President Bush and the Republicans came to life. For months it had appeared that they had no chance of winning. Many Republican loyalists complained of Bush’s almost resigned attitude in the first two debates. Now, in response to his first movement in the polls since September, the campaigning George Bush is back in action. He’s fighting, he’s actually exciting when he speaks, and many of his supporters now believe that he really wants to (and might) win the election.

A final factor that helps account for the turnaround is the issue of “trust.” It alone cannot account for the strange shifts of the past week, but with those shifts the President’s theme has also taken on new life. And it’s quite fascinating that it is, in fact, working.

Many more Americans believe Bill Clinton’s story about his actions during the Vietnam War than believe George Bush’s explanation of his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair. And, presumably, Americans place more importance in the things a man has done while Vice President (as Bush was during the Iran-Contra affair) than when he was a college student (as Clinton was during the Vietnam War). Yet somehow, recent polls are consistently showing that George Bush is trusted by 20% more Americans than is Bill Clinton.

So as the polls show the gap closing, and with George Bush looking again like he wants to win, voters are taking a new look at the President and deciding, some without enthusiasm, that they would rather have him running the country for the next four years than his Democratic challenger. (Actually, this “lack of enthusiasm” is itself a factor in the campaign and positive support for both Bush and Clinton is soft, with many voters voting against rather than for a candidate.)

The closing gap in the polls has also affected Bill Clinton. Over the past few weeks the Democrats had become a bit complacent. Too many stories had begun to appear about a Clinton “Transition team”. There was a great deal of speculation devoted to who might hold which post in a Clinton cabinet. There was even a joke around the country that the Clinton’s were already making measurements for new drapes in the White House.

All during this time Clinton’s top campaign advisors were warning supporters about the consequences of taking a victory for granted—but their appeals were not taken seriously until now. Now Clinton has renewed his fighting spirit. He is once again responding to Bush’s attacks with challenges of his own.

As a result of all of this, in its final week, the presidential campaign has really come to life.

***

Watching the President and Bill Clinton this week has been truly captivating. Their political messages have been sharpened to the finest edge. The crowds that come out to see them are larger and more enthusiastic than any other time in this campaign season. For the first time in this campaign, you can feel the drama and the tension of the decision we are about to make.

This is presidential politics at its best. At this point in the campaign you can throw away the in-depth issue papers and the complicated policy debates—the election will be decided by three key factors:

· the mood of the voters;
· voter perception of the candidates; and
· the effectiveness of the candidates’ campaign organizations.

This election has now come down to a choice between three very different messages delivered by three very different men.

Governor Bill Clinton, the Democrat, has come to represent the voice of those who want change and who see government as an instrument of that change. His message of hope has been quite inspirational, especially to those most in need. He still has a wide lead among the young, women, urban voters (especially African Americans), and among the poor.

President George Bush, on the other hand, is presenting himself as an experienced and trusted leader—a steady conservative for those who either don’t want change or fear the change they believe that the Democrats will bring. He has strong support among upper-income and suburban voters, among veterans of military service, and he has a slight edge in support among men in general.

Ross Perot, despite his recent media performances, still appeals on a more basic level to those voters who are angry and feel alienated from “Washington” and politics-as-usual. He runs strongest among those voters who describe themselves as “independent” (neither Democrat nor Republican), especially so in the western mountain states. Some analysts have even suggested that Perot’s recent outbursts at the media and George Bush may even help him to hold onto a core group of alienated voters because they, like him, are primarily driven by anger.

In these last few days of the campaign the candidates are criss-crossing the country, appearing before tens of thousands of supporters in as many as five states in a single day and spending millions of dollars on television advertising. Perot, alone, will spend upwards of $25 million in October and has purchased hours of expensive prime time television for the last three days before election day.

In the end, the voters will decide which message (“hope for change”, “trusted leadership” or “anger”), and which candidate best captures their mood.

But capturing the public mood is not, by itself, enough to win a national campaign. Winning at that level requires an effective national organization to turn out voters on election day.

In this area, Clinton and the Democrats seem to hold a decided advantage. Their national field operation is the best they’ve had in years.

In 1984 and 1988 local Democratic Party campaigns ran away from Mondale and Dukakis. Because the party’s presidential candidates were “too liberal” and viewed as losers, most local Democrats didn’t want to be associated with the top of their national ticket. Clinton is a different Democrat. He’s perceived as a moderate on many social issues (crime, welfare and personal responsibility) and, unlike Democrats of the past, he has invested heavily in developing ties (and investing millions of campaign dollars) to develop a nationally coordinated campaign. The Clinton campaign is working closely with the local organizations of 435 Democratic congressional candidates and 36 Senate campaigns. And because he was perceived for so long as the “clear front-runner”—they are working with him.

George Bush, on the contrary, has experienced some difficulty in maintaining loyalty within Republican ranks. His recent surge is improving his national standing and infusing excitement into his campaign—but it comes too late to hold together a strong national Republican effort.

Because he was down for so long (and still is in some states), many Republican senate and congressional candidates shamefully distanced themselves from their own president out of fear that his unpopularity would bring them down. It was reported that only 26 of the 435 Republican congressional candidates asked to be photographed with their President (such photos are usually standard fare in local campaigns). And there has been an emergence of what are called “Clinton Republicans”—that is, Republican senators and congressmen who are touting their ties with or a fondness for the Democratic candidate in hope that they will save their own election efforts.

At least three major Republican senators running for reelection have made statements that they are ideologically closer to Bill Clinton than are their Democratic challengers.

This fragmentation and division spells trouble for national Republican efforts to get out their voters. In short, President Bush is gaining ground and inspiring the grass-roots of his party, but his surge came may have come too late to help the organizational side of the campaign.

One result of this is that in recent days the President has enlisted the help of the fundamentalist Christian movement—which is nationally organized—in an effort to get out the vote on election day. Whether their organization will be able to compensate for his losses on the party side remains to be seen. But, if the fundamentalist Christians work together with the now-energized party regulars, it may even the score somewhat.

Meanwhile, Ross Perot, for all his talk about an army of volunteers, really has no national organization to speak of. He must instead rely, as he has all along, on spontaneous voter anger to produce votes at the polls.

***

While we have relied on polls all year long as accurate indicators of voter attraction and trends, with the election this close, and with so much volatility in the public mood, it becomes difficult to find the precision needed to make predictions.

Nevertheless, at this point it seems safe to say that while Bush’s final week surge will alter the state-by-state count, the gap in some states is too large to close. It appears certain, for example, that Clinton will win Arkansas (6 electoral votes), California (54), Connecticut (8), Hawaii (4), Illinois (22), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (12), New York (33), Oregon (7), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), West Virginia (5), and Washington, DC (3). That’s eleven states with 171 electoral votes.

There are another five states (Washington, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Colorado) with 63 electoral votes that also look good for Bill Clinton.

President Bush is so far assured of victory only in Utah with five electoral votes, but for the first time is leading with a sufficient margin to be the likely victor in Nebraska (5), Idaho (4), Texas (32), South Carolina (8), Indiana (12), Alaska (3) and Virginia (13) for a total of 75 additional electoral votes.

The odds still appear to be with Bill Clinton, but the final decision rests with the voters. And surprising things could still happen in what has already been a crazy election year.

***

Some Senate and Congressional Election Eve Notes:

Leads are growing and leads are changing in key senate races as well.

Wisconsin: Republican Senator Bob Kasten is still trailing Democratic challenger Russell Feingold, but the gap is closing.

New York: Democratic challenger Robert Abrams is maintaining his slight lead over Republican Senator Al D’Amato.

Pennsylvania: Republican Senator Arlen Specter has taken the lead over Democratic challenger Lynn Yeakel.

Oregon: Republican Senator Bob Packwood has a slight 2 percent lead over Democratic challenger Les AuCoin.

(Kasten, Packwood and Specter are the three highest recipients of pro-Israel PAC money this year. They are all Republicans who have opposed President Bush’s Middle East policies and have also worked to distance themselves from the President’s reelection efforts—as has D’Amato.)

Kansas: Republican Senator Bob Dole is expected to easily defeat Democratic challenger Gloria O’Dell. O’Dell had sought to make an issue of Dole’s balanced Middle East position, but to no avail.

California: Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Boxer is maintaining a very slight edge over her Republican opponent Bruce Herschensohn. Herschensohn is an avid supporter of Likud’s policies and is opposed to the “land for peace” formula. Boxer, who is Jewish, surprised Arab Americans last week when she stated her support for Palestinian self-determination during a state-wide television appearance. The Arab American community in California has endorsed her effort.

House of Representatives

West Virginia: Democratic Congressman Nick Joe Rahall, an Arab American, is expected to win over Republican challenger Ben Waldman. Waldman has tried to make an issue of Rahall’s Middle East position and his having received financial contributions from Arab Americans.

Ohio: Democratic Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar, also an Arab American, is facing a very tough fight from Republican challenger Martin Hoke. She is currently behind in the polls—but is fighting hard for her political life.

***

NOTE: I will be appearing on CNN’s International Hour on Wednesday at 3:00 (EST) to comment on Arab views of the election results.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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