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Homestretch Momentum

By Richard J. Cattani / October 24, 1996



The view of the Nov. 5 American elections from here is that not much will alter a momentum that has been on full view for a year or more.

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This has been a normalizing election. If President Clinton wins reelection and the Democrats even things in the House and Senate, the American polity will finish out the past half century with remarkable parity.

From Harry Truman on, five Democrats have been elected president, and four Republicans (five officeholders each if Jerry Ford is counted for the GOP). Three Republicans will have been reelected (Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan), and three Democrats voted back in (Truman, Johnson, Clinton).

With Congress, the electorate is evidently countering the swing that went Republican in 1994, partly under assertions of voter anger and media bias. In 1994 and again now, in practically the same proportions, half of voters say they are dissatisfied but not angry, a quarter satisfied but not enthusiastic, and a fifth or fewer say they're angry, with a sliver enthusiastic about how the federal government works.

Anger was overblown in 1994 as a driving force in politics. The public does think the government tries to do too many things, but this has been the prevailing view at least since the reaction to Democratic social reforms under Lyndon Johnson.

Is media bias affecting the outcome?

We know the public thinks the media are biased, and some in the media agree. Right? The latest Public Perspective, published by the Roper Center, reviews this topic. It begins by observing that almost 90 percent of Washington-based political journalists voted for Clinton in 1992. Half the Washington reporters identified themselves as Democrats, 37 percent independent, and 4 percent Republican. National newspaper editors, and younger reporters, come closer to a balance in party and independent leanings. (Interestingly, 9 percent of newspaper editors refused to answer questions on their party ID, and a slightly smaller group refused to respond to how they voted in 1992.)

More than half of the public thinks coverage has been evenly balanced. If anything, the public tends to perceive that whichever party is on the rise must be benefiting from media leanings.

Coverage did not drive the gains Clinton has made since the debates. Dole's shift in tactics boomeranged. Dole is seen as attacking Clinton more and explaining what he would do as president less. Clinton is seen as focused on his agenda more and as attacking less. This conforms to what we have seen for such time: The public wants the focus kept on the practical substance of political decisions, not its polemics or its coverage.

By a big margin the public says that watching presidential candidates debate live is the best way to learn about the campaign - with reading newspapers, watching TV news, reading editorials, and watching paid ads trailing well behind. By 3 to 1 they want to know more about where the candidates stand on issues than about campaign strategies and tactics or which candidates are ahead. Knowing about the personal lives of candidates is at the bottom of their list.

Basically, the public wants the media to get out of the way. The bias that most annoys them is whatever leads media organizations and reporters to think that professional media performance, rather than the thing covered itself, is primary.

The country's economic outlook and mood - both upbeat - set the momentum for this election. Ross Perot's bid has also not been a factor. In normal times, the two-party system is enough. Two candidates in the ring, two teams on the field. Third parties, like refs and the press, stay out of it.

*Richard J. Cattani is editor at large of the Monitor.