The election: `up for grabs'

DEAR Voter: Do you feel something less than excitement about your presidential favorite? Are you not quite ready to march in the streets and carry signs in his behalf? You are not alone. One could have gotten a distinctly different impression by watching all that convention hoopla in Atlanta and New Orleans. But the electorate at large has not been caught up emotionally by either candidate.

Some national polls have disclosed this voter disinclination to get aboard with either Michael Dukakis or George Bush. One showed that a heavy majority of the voters simply weren't interested in these candidates.

Another showed that 51 percent of those who say they were supporting Mr. Dukakis said they were ``not fully committed'' to his candidacy, while 43 percent of those who backed Mr. Bush indicated this same lack of commitment to their choice.

In addition, several highly regarded political analysts, in morning sessions with reporters, have observed that the electorate this year is particularly ``soft,'' leaving the race, as they see it, very much up for grabs.

What's out there? Is it voter apathy? Look back through the years and it's difficult to find an election without strong, even passionate voter commitment to one or both candidates.

The voters certainly were heavily involved in the 1984 presidential campaign. In fact, polls showed that 75 percent of the electorate was ``fully committed'' to either Ronald Reagan (mostly for Mr. Reagan, of course) or Walter Mondale by this time four years ago.

Perhaps one would have to go back to the early 1920s, with Harding vs. Cox in 1920 and Coolidge beating Davis in 1924, to discover elections with such low emotional involvement.

But the emotionalism of earlier elections was not necessarily a good thing.

I can remember the deep emotions that marked and marred the Hoover vs. Smith campaign of 1928. Al Smith was the first Roman Catholic presidential candidate. In my grade-school class we held our own little private election. I can still recall the open animosity shown by the Protestants in that room toward the handful of Catholics suspected of casting the few votes for Smith.

It wasn't pretty. And it's so good that we've put that prejudice behind us. Now we have a Greek-American candidate with a Jewish wife on the ticket and with no signs that they are suffering from bias. Indeed, some Republican voters are saying they are going to cross over and vote for Dukakis this time as their way of breaking down remaining political barriers.

The questions raised about Dan Quayle are certainly stirring up the electorate - or so one could conclude from the big play the controversy has been given on TV and in the newspapers. But I'm not convinced that the public is making a commitment to either Dukakis or Bush as a result of the Quayle flap. Nor do the polls indicate this.

Even the off-camera hoopla at both conventions was more restrained than any I've witnessed at conventions, beginning in 1956. One could just feel the all-out commitment that year among the delegates and the voters at large. The feeling of ``I like Ike'' was genuine and widespread. And there were many millions of voters who felt loyalty and affection for Adlai Stevenson.

This year I purposely moved among the delegates in their hotels at both Atlanta and New Orleans. All were supporters of the men to be nominated. And when on the convention floor they were able to rise to great heights of enthusiasm. But I didn't hear much of this in their off-camera, spontaneous moments.

The reason? Neither Dukakis nor Bush was the candidate the voters really wanted. Dukakis was one of the ``Seven Dwarfs'' during the primaries in part because the Democrats (and polls showed this) wanted Mario Cuomo or Sam Nunn to lead them. Similarly, the Republicans really didn't want Bush.

To be sure, he led the polls. But a lot of Republicans preferred Bob Dole. And actually what the Republicans really wanted was something they could not have: Four more years of Ronald Reagan.

Reagan is really the problem. Whatever may be said about him, good or bad, it must be conceded that he is a hard act to follow. He has completely dominated the presidential and political stage for eight years. He's a giant figure - and he casts a giant shadow that tends to obscure those two fellows who'd like to follow him in the White House.

So what comes next? Is this to be an election where most voters give no more than one or two cheers for their favorite candidates?

Not necessarily. Both Dukakis and Bush did much to build up a strong, even passionate personal following by their superb convention speeches. Even now as I write, this apathy may be turning to something less spongy.

But there is still a lot of very little out there - very little allegiance and very little full commitment.

Therefore, don't be surprised if the polls that measure one candidate against another swing back and forth. The voters simply haven't made up their minds.

There's probably more volatility among the electorate than we've seen for years.

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

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