Richard Gephardt and Robert Dole may be out front in the 1988 presidential election process, thanks to their first-place showings in Monday's Iowa precinct caucuses. But for business in the United States, the ideological mix of the candidates winning Congress later this year - whether they are Democrats or Republicans - will be as important as the presidential election, according to election analysts and business lobbyists.
The business community is far from indifferent to this year's presidential election. Indeed, Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, and Vice-President George Bush garner high marks from business, based on contributions from political-action committees and results of opinion polls - although business, measured by those same contributions and polls, seems uncertain about what to make of TV evangelist Pat Robertson, who also rang up impressive tallies in Iowa.
A study of 609 chief executive officers interviewed by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman for the January issue of Business Month magazine (formerly Dun's Review) found more than 40 percent of the CEOs assuming that Mr. Bush would be elected president in 1988. But if they had their preference, the CEOs would chose Senate minority leader Dole over Bush.
Very few of the CEOs believed that a Democrat would be elected president this year.
The CEOs interviewed (63 percent of whom were Republicans and only 8 percent Democrats, with the rest politically ``independent'') see the election as ``very important,'' according to Ben J. Wattenberg, a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Mr. Wattenberg wrote the Business Month article. The CEOs, he says, believe that if a Democrat is elected to the White House, ``there will be a renewal of high taxes, business demoralization, more inflation, and more government spending.''
``Other than that,'' quips Wattenberg, ``they see no problem'' in a Democrat's getting elected.
Such perceptions help explain why, as of Dec. 31, Mr. Dole and Bush were far ahead in contributions from political-action committees, organizations that support specific issues or causes.
Not all the PAC money received by the candidates necessarily comes from business groups, or from professional groups supporting business. But much of it presumably does, says Karen Finucan, a specialist with the Federal Election Commission in Washington.
By the end of 1987, Dole led in PAC dollars, with $640,000; Bush came in second, with $539,000.
Among Democrats, only Mr. Gephardt came close to either Dole or Bush, with PAC contributions of $341,000; Albert Gore Jr. came in second, with $169,000, followed by Paul Simon, with $152,000. Many of the PAC contributions to Democrats are believed to have come from labor, farm, or consumer groups, although some of the PAC money is presumed to be business-oriented.
Presidential contenders Bruce Babbitt, Gary Hart, Pierre duPont, and Pat Robertson had no PAC contributions, whether or not by choice, as of Dec. 31. Other candidates had small, but varying, amounts.
Influential business groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce of the United States and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), refrain from making presidential endorsements, although they seek to bring the candidates' positions to the attention of business.
At the Chamber of Commerce, for example, the candidates' stands are examined as part of the regular news coverage on the chamber's television program, ``Nation's Business Today.'' The NAM also put out information on various political candidates. It also sponsors dialogues between congressional lawmakers and business groups, says Sara Ross, an NAM spokeswoman.
The Chamber of Commerce, for its part, has long been known for its rating of congressional lawmakers, which are intended to show whether they come down on the side of business, if they are antibusiness, or pro-labor. In the chamber's cumulative ratings through 1987, Republicans have far higher scores than than their Democratic counterparts. Dole, for example, has a cumulative chamber rating of 84 percent; Jack Kemp, 83 percent; Bush, 81 percent; Mr. du Pont, 60 percent. Among Democrats, Mr. Gore is out front with 33 percent; Gephardt has 30 percent; Mr. Simon, 26 percent; Mr. Hart, 23 percent.
Only candidates who are in or have ever served in Congress have such cumulative ratings by the US chamber.
This year marks ``a major change,'' says Pamela Slane, an analyst with the Business-Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC). She notes that this is the first time in 20 years that there is no incumbent running for the White House.
Moreover, the outcome of this year's contest will determine the extent to which President Reagan's program of low tax rates, deregulation, and relatively free trade is modified or rescinded.
BIPAC was founded 25 years ago, in part by the NAM, to support candidates who ``create a better climate for the business community,'' Ms. Slane says.
The committee considers itself nonpartisan, and it is mainly interested in supporting business-oriented candidates in congressional elections that involve new challengers, or where there is an open seat without an incumbent. In most congressional races, incumbents tend to be reelected, whatever their party affiliation.
Slane says the pressing legislative need, as BIPAC sees it, is for ``action on the federal budget front,'' given existing and future massive budget deficits. Congress, she contends, is ``slightly more moderate'' in the way it deals with business issues than it was in the 1970s, as evidenced by the narrow votes on such issues as plant closing notification, use of polygraph tests by the business community, and federal tax policy.
On money matters, she says, Republicans and Democrats tend to vote along party lines.
Such money and tax votes often appear one-sided, she explains, given the big Democratic majority in Congress, particularly in the House.
But on specific ``bread and butter'' issues, she observes, lawmakers tend to vote their private judgments. These votes are often close, such as the one on welfare reform in the House last fall, which was ultimately decided in that chamber by one vote.
Al Bourland, vice-president of congressional relations at the Chamber of Commerce, sees the current congressional orientation differently. He says that there is a ``growing gap'' between Democrats and Republicans on business issues, with the GOP more and more business-oriented, Democrats perhaps less so. Thus, he says, on the Senate side the average Republican has a 76 percent rating from the chamber, compared with a 36 percent rating for the average Democrat.
But the ratings from organized labor are almost exactly reversed, with Democrats in the 80 percent range, Republicans in the 20s.
Mr. Bourland predicts organized labor will be making a special push to win seats in the this year's congressional elections. Labor unions, he points out, claim to have been instrumental in helping to elect a Democratic Senate in the 1986 midterm election.
Thus, the final outcome for Congress in 1988, Bourland says, is ``more important than ever.'' The chamber is particularly eager to support three issues: a balanced-budget amendment, a line-item veto to allow a president to kill parts of appropriation bills instead of having to sign or veto an entire package, and biennial (two-year) budgets. Bourland says two-year budgets would give lawmakers ``far more time to consider'' the merits of legislation than is now the case.