America's election season: How deep is the protest?

THE underdog's underdog: That's Adlai Stevenson III as he attempts to make fools of the forecasters who say he's headed for a landslide defeat in his race against Gov. James Thompson. I watched the last debate between the two. My TV picture showed an ebullient Mr. Thompson, a weary but battling Mr. Stevenson. Stevenson vs. Thompson is a contest to watch. Here's Stevenson with everything going against him. He left the Democratic ticket because he felt it was contaminated by the presence of two followers of right-wing extremist Lyndon LaRouche. So he's the candidate of the Illinois Solidarity Party. That means he's sure to lose some of the straight-Democratic-ticket voters -- even though he's imploring them to leap to his side.

Stevenson has been scrambling for campaign money. Thompson campaign coffers are overflowing. The tall governor has also been widely perceived as doing a good job. Stevenson says otherwise -- that the state is suffering economically because of alleged Thompson's neglect.

Stevenson came within 5,074 votes of upsetting Thompson four years ago -- at a time when the polls, as they are now, were showing Thompson far in the lead. He did it mainly by winning 48 of Chicago's 50 wards, an outcome that included a record black turnout. But Illinois political reporters say Chicago isn't ready to hand Stevenson all these votes this time.

Look at it this way: If Stevenson, against all this adversity, should, shall we say, make a ``good showing,'' then it could well tell us something. Even if he doesn't win, even if he falls somewhat behind his vote of four years ago, he could tell us that there is a lot more dissent and unrest and unhappiness among the electorate than is now being perceived.

I talked to some farmers and some farm experts while in Illinois recently. The farm economy is, indeed, ``hurting,'' as it is all around the United States. But there doesn't seem to be a trend toward voting Democratic among these farmers.

Typical of these attitudes was this comment from a Champaign County farmer: ``Those prices are really hurting us. But we'll stay in business. The farmers I know around here will still vote Republican even though they don't think either party is on their side.''

Once again, as has happened in previous farm ``crises,'' there are a lot of farmers going out of business, or on the verge of going out of business. Many of these were already Democrats. But the down-and-out farmer doesn't seem set on going to the polls in droves. He's down on both parties. And, unbelievable as it may seem, he often still has some kind words to say about President Reagan.

But perhaps in my short stay in Illinois I didn't pick up the real story. Perhaps the farmers were only telling me what they wanted me to hear. That can happen. Indeed, farmers often tell pollsters and reporters what they are apparently seeking. Not intentional obfuscation, mind you. But they don't mind confusing those who pry into their private affairs.

What I'm getting at is that there just might be a widespread discontent out there that goes extremely deep and is very bitter -- and which will show up in a lot of states where farming is a major part of the economy.

And if it is, this unhappiness will be readily perceived in this Illinois race for governor. If Stevenson fares well, you can be certain that unrest and protest will be an important part of a great many elections around the US. In short, a big Democratic victory will then be likely.

Already, of course, there's evidence that the Democrats will make some gains in both the House and Senate. Polls are showing that the Democrats need no more than to win a few elections that now are rated as tossups to take over control of the Senate and, with that, control of Congress.

Sensing this Democratic trend, the Republicans are pouring money and political effort into trying to offset what are often referred to as ``normal'' gains by the party out of power in the off-presidential-year election. The President is out on the hustings, thumping for GOP candidates. And Republicans are telephoning 11 million voters to get out the GOP vote.

But the question remains: Is there a mighty protest vote out around the country -- among the farmers and, in addition, among the failed businessmen and the jobless -- that could swell ``normal'' Democratic gains into a Democratic victory of surprisingly big proportions?

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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