By National Journal and William Schneider
August 10, 1996
epublicans are underdogs this year--not just because President Clinton is popular, but also because Ross Perot makes life much more difficult for the GOP. The problem is that Republicans don't seem to know how to run an underdog campaign.
For the past 30 years, Republicans have run only two kinds of presidential campaigns: as incumbents or against weak and discredited Democrats. Running against a popular Democratic incumbent with a good economy on his side is a whole new experience. It requires the tactics of an underdog--guerrilla tactics: surprise, rapid response, catching your opponent off guard and provoking him into making a mistake.
Instead, it's the Republicans who have been making all the mistakes. They're letting the Democrats claim what's supposed to be Republican territory--such issues as values, deficit reduction and welfare reform. They're telling themselves that the race has to tighten because Republicans are the superior force. Didn't the GOP win a spectacular victory just two years ago?
Yes, but it encouraged overconfidence. Sure, the country has a conservative majority. But that doesn't guarantee a Republican victory. Why not? Because Democrats know it, too, and are not about to make the mistake of running as liberals.
And because overconfident conservatives are splitting the GOP. Political correctness is no longer a problem for Democrats. But let Robert Dole waver from the conservative line, and the Right denounces him.
And because all the talk about realignment and revolution caused congressional Republicans to overplay their hand. They threatened popular government programs and brought the Democrats' pro-government coalition, long given up for dead, back to life.
Republicans need to run an underdog campaign this year, something they haven't had to do since the 1964 Goldwater campaign. They weren't very good at it then. And they're not very good at it now.
The other danger Republicans face is from Perot. What's driving the Perot vote this year? Here's a clue from the CNN-Time magazine Election Monitor, which has been interviewing the same panel of voters since November. Most Dole and Clinton voters say they aren't worried about maintaining their standard of living over the next five years. But most Perot supporters are. Moreover, they are likelier than even Dole voters to endorse the view that the country is in deep and serious trouble.
In 1992, Perot split the ``change'' vote with Clinton. This year, however, Perot has that vote all to himself. If voters suddenly become anxious or pessimistic, if they begin to sour on Clinton, Perot is well positioned to pick up support. Not Dole, who is too much identified with the status quo. So if the voters turn against Clinton, Perot will very likely split the anti-Clinton vote with Dole.
How would they split it? Perot voters and Dole voters are both antigovernment, but in different ways. In the CNN-Time poll, most Dole and Perot voters endorsed the view that Washington is doing too many things that should be left to individuals and business. Only 39 per cent of Clinton voters agreed. That's the core definition of Republican economic philosophy, and it includes both Dole and Perot voters.
The survey also asked people, ``Do you believe the federal government has become so large and powerful that it poses a threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens?'' Resentment of the federal government has become so widespread that almost half of Clinton voters agreed. And the Democrats are the pro-government party!
You'd expect even more Republicans to distrust the federal government, and they do: 62 per cent of Dole voters say it's become a threat to ordinary Americans. But Perot voters are even more resentful of government than Republicans--71 per cent.
Perot and Dole voters part company on social issues, however. Only Dole voters felt that government should do more to promote traditional values. Most Clinton and Perot voters endorsed the alternative view, that government should not favor one set of values over another.
The differences were even more striking on the abortion issue. Most Dole voters said they opposed abortion--although 40 per cent said they favored abortion rights, which is why Dole is calling for tolerance. About 60 per cent of Clinton voters said they were for abortion rights--and so did about 60 per cent of Perot voters.
Perot voters are libertarians. On economic issues, they share the conservative antigovernment views of Republicans. On social issues such as abortion, they share the antigovernment views of liberal Democrats.
So does Perot take votes from Dole? Yes. Here's why. If you ask Perot voters whom they would vote for between Clinton and Dole, they split evenly. Perot doesn't change the outcome. Among non-Perot voters, however, Clinton has a big lead. Dole does better among Perot voters than in the rest of the electorate. If Perot were not running, the election would be closer. Bottom line: Perot hurts Dole.
What happens to the Perot vote in congressional races, where there are no Perot candidates? In 1992, Perot voters split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans for Congress. In 1994, Perot asked his supporters to vote Republican--and they did. They helped the GOP take over Congress.
In the CNN-Time survey, Perot voters still tilt Republican for Congress, by 50-38 per cent. That's why the congressional vote this year is a lot closer than the presidential vote. But this year, Perot's Reform Party says that it will endorse congressional candidates district by district. It could end up endorsing a lot of Democrats.
Perot may not affect the outcome of the presidential race, but his followers probably hold the key to determining which party will control Congress.
By National Journal and William Schneider
August 10, 1996