IT'S time for some plain talk about how to view the 1988 primary elections: There has been for some time a broad, overriding structure to the 1988 presidential primary race. On the Republican side, Vice-President George Bush has for more than a year had a clear edge on the field, generally throughout the country. Sen. Robert Dole began 1987 and ended it as Mr. Bush's clear rival, with a steady 20 percent of GOP voters favoring him, but with relatively few states that he can claim as his turf. These two Republicans are well known as experienced public figures. For Mr. Dole to beat Bush, he must win in the opening Feb. 8 Iowa caucuses by enough of a margin to encourage speculation that Bush is vulnerable. For the other Republicans, too, Dole has to beat Bush by enough (a thin loss might not do), and they have to run third or fourth in Iowa to be given a chance in New Hampshire a week later, and thence to survive for the March 8 Super Tuesday in the South, where Bush looks strong.
On the Democratic side, two candidates are widely known mainly because they have run before - Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson. But they are perceived to have flaws that will undercut their prospects however long they stay in the running - which may be a long time, given the essentially psychological motivation of the one, Mr. Hart, and the social-action agenda of the other, the Rev. Mr. Jackson. The other candidates are not well known, and none has significantly pulled ahead of the others nationally in any meaningful way. The structural factor here is that the public wants to take its time looking over the Dukakis-Gephardt-Gore-Babbitt-Simon cluster, from among whom Democratic voters will most likely choose their nominee.
Day-to-day political soundings by polls and pundits may tend to obscure this structure by suggesting there is more volatility - that more is going on in the sense of impact from campaigning - than there actually is.
For example, one midweek survey in New Hampshire showed Bush at 29 percent; Dole, 18; Pierre du Pont, 8; Alexander Haig, 4; Jack Kemp, 5; Pat Robertson, 3, with 33 percent undecided. On the Democratic side, Michael Dukakis led with 36 percent; of the rest, Bruce Babbitt had 2 percent; Richard Gephardt, 1; Albert Gore, 2; Hart 10; Jackson, 6; and Paul Simon, 12, with 31 percent undecided. The numbers tend to vary: When Mr. Kemp was running certain ads, his following appeared to climb to 15 percent, then drop when they stopped. Hart rose similarly when he campaigned in New Hampshire, then dipped when he left. And so forth.
So either a candidate's nearness makes the voter's heart grow fonder, or, more likely, polls have not perfected the kind of ``screen'' needed to sample actual voters, and so are subject to lots of bounce. Moreover, surges in media interest in a particular candidate may take on a life of their own - note the recent flurry of attention Mr. Babbitt has been getting. Given the lack of a clear nationwide constituency, regional attachments (Dole in farm states, Mr. Dukakis in New Hampshire, etc.) loom all the larger.
Either way, a skepticism over survey findings should be maintained by those who want to follow this year's election seriously.
Surveys are useful approximations. They are of help to campaign professionals, of interest to sociologists and political scientists. They can be used to call a politician's bluff when he claims he is doing the public's will.
But one can ask: Does the voter really have to know this to be able to vote his or her convictions? We prefer to have the data. But, for the citizen, it should take second place to perceiving whether candidate A or candidate B is his or her kind of leader.
A question to pursue: Is the perception by the elites - news media, politicians, and other opinionmakers - that George Bush is, you know, ``a wimp,'' ``ineffectual,'' ``whiney,'' shared by the general mass of voters who will actually decide his fate?
The elites were wrong about Ronald Reagan in 1980; they belittled him. They failed to see the structure behind Jimmy Carter's 1976 effort, or Mr. Carter's solid edge over Edward Kennedy in 1980. Distracted by early results in the really rather uncharacteristic states of New Hampshire and Iowa, they failed to acknowledge the inherent superiority of Walter Mondale's candidacy over Gary Hart's in 1984.
Again, the public may be looking at this election in a way that differs substantially from the conventional wisdom.
So we say to the public in 1988: Look at the man, not his campaign; listen to your heart, not the pundits. The election rides on your vote, not on the nightly news.