How to Unscramble This Puzzler Of an Election

This is the most puzzling presidential race of my memory. Where are the bumper stickers and the signs on the lawn, proclaiming support for Clinton/Gore or Dole/Kemp? I've traveled a bit of late in the San Diego and Chicago areas, as well as in the Washington, D.C., region, and I've seen or heard very little to indicate that the voters know - or care - that we have a big election coming up. I can't figure it out. So much is at stake, including very possibly the shaping of our Supreme Court for years to come. What's happening out there?

To a reporter who has spent years talking to voters and probing their thoughts, this void of passionate commitment that I'm finding this fall is singularly puzzling, even troubling. The excitement at rallies for President Clinton and Bob Dole that I see on TV seems restrained. There's a big drop-off of audiences for the debates. Table talk at restaurants is on other topics. I'm getting no angry letters.

I simply can't figure out what's motivating voters. There have been several polls that show the public doesn't trust Mr. Clinton as much as it does Mr. Dole.

Indeed, some polls show that Americans by a wide margin say Dole is more "honest" than Clinton. But then the same pollsters report that Clinton is way out in front of his challenger in the presidential race.

Ever since Clinton got into the White House he has scored badly when it comes to "trust." People appear to distrust him. But they are prepared to reelect him. Polls consistently show Clinton outscoring Dole when it comes to "leadership." Can you have leadership without public trust? Many voters seem to think so. Also, Americans, again according to the polls, like Clinton better than Dole. But how can you like someone if he doesn't have your trust?

Do I have any rational explanation for this contradiction? Well, I've struggled with this problem for some time now and have come up with this:

The voters this year have both a personal judgment and a political judgment on how they are going to vote. Those who are voting for Clinton may not trust him very much personally, but they distrust even more the direction a Republican Congress wants to take them. They didn't like the antifederal government thrust of the Gingrich-led Republicans last year.

Many of them, particularly the senior citizens, are convinced that Clinton is more likely to protect government-funded entitlements. So this Clinton lead is fashioned by voters who back him, often lamely, simply because they fear what would happen to them with the Republicans in charge of government in Washington.

That's why the so-called "character" issue hasn't been playing well for the Republicans. Actually, polls show that Filegate and Whitewater-related events have eroded public trust in Clinton - but not enough to keep people from voting for him or, rather, as I see it, from voting for the kind of government that Dole would likely preside over. Indeed, Dole's repeated attacks on Clinton's character at the last debate apparently didn't change the minds of many voters.

But this kind of voting - political as opposed to personal - does make for an unimpassioned electorate. Is this bad? One could say that this is good - that it means the public is making its decisions more on issues than on personalities.

But I don't feel entirely comfortable with a race in which trust in a candidate takes second place to other, often self-interested, considerations.

Anyway, the race-horse element in this contest is gone. People, instead, are voting issues or party loyalty. That, again, may or may not be all that bad for the country's future. But it certainly is less exciting and could, of itself, result in a big drop-off in voting in November. And that would be very bad.

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