America's voters aren't very happy about Election '88. Pollsters tell us that almost two-thirds of all Americans wish someone else were running for president from the two major parties. Voters think that George Bush and Michael Dukakis are being too negative. And they don't hear enough about the real issues.
All this unhappiness is nothing new in presidential campaigns. ``These comments are typical every four years,'' insists David Moore, a pollster and political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.
But there is evidence that the grumbling got worse after 1972, when the parties began widespread use of primaries to select their candidates. Before that, the candidates were largely picked by the party bigwigs.
Political scientist Fred Greenstein of Princeton University says that voters were more content back in the 1950s. During the past 40 years, ``the voters were happiest when choosing between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson,'' Dr. Greenstein says. ``Both men were selected by machine politicians in convention, and they ran against people [like Sen. Robert Taft] who had a lot of grass-roots support.''
Austin Ranney, a political scientist at the University of California (Berkeley), says that back in the days of political bosses, the candidates ``emerged as consensus choices of their parties, and voters were generally satisfied.''
Reaching consensus today is more difficult because of the lengthy, fractious primary process. The negative campaigning, bickering, and bitter feelings that emerge in the primaries impose a heavy price on the winners.
``It's a long, grinding fight for the nomination,'' Dr. Ranney says. ``People in their own party are shooting at the candidates, and they arrive at the nomination reasonably scarred. So even in your own party, you are less likely to think of the candidate as flawless.''
The price of all this quarreling is significant. Larry Hugick, a Gallup pollster, says the number of undecided voters runs about twice as high this year as in 1984, '80, and '76. Not liking anyone, many voters waver.
Part of the problem is personal. Earlier this year, Vice-President Bush was viewed unfavorably by 40 percent or more of the voters - a warning sign that the Republicans were in trouble. Recently, he improved his overall standing to about 55 percent favorable, 35 unfavorable, which Mr. Hugick describes as ``average.''
Now the problem has shifted to Governor Dukakis, whose unfavorable rating has surged to 44 percent, with 50 percent viewing him favorably.
``If you compare that to the past, Dukakis now is about as unpopular as [Sen. George] McGovern in 1972 and [Sen. Barry] Goldwater in 1964,'' Hugick says. ``So there is certainly dissatisfaction on the Democratic side. On the Republican side, people are less enthusiastic about Bush than they were about [President] Reagan. Also, the record indicates that Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson were more popular during their campaigns than Bush is today.''
Put together feelings toward Mr. Bush and Mr. Dukakis, and the public's enthusiasm is ``below average'' this year, Hugick concludes.
John Chubb, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, agrees that the candidates are part of the problem, but suggests there are other factors that run deeper.
``I really think it gets back to the basic conditions of the country,'' he says. ``Today we have seeming prosperity. But everyone knows way down deep that we have serious problems, and no one is dealing with them.''
Tackling those problems, such as the budget deficit, may require raising taxes. Mr. Chubb says:
``These are the kinds of problems politicians cannot address without getting into hot water. So the more appealing candidates, like [US Sen.] Bill Bradley, don't want to run. And those who do run and win are too smart or too afraid to talk about the real issues.''
Chubb suggests that public dissatisfaction really cannot be explained by a single factor. Part of it is the negative campaigning. Part of it is the failure to address tough issues. And part of it is unhappiness with the candidates themselves.
He says that despite Bush's tougher image this fall, doubts still remain with many voters about whether he is his own man. ``There is still doubt about him as a leader, and those doubts have not vanished.''
Dukakis's problems are at least as great.
``As people got to know Dukakis, they liked him less. He came across as smug, arrogant, technocratic. People wonder whether he could stand up to [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev. And riding around in that tank made him look silly and small.''
Both candidates ``pale compared to Ronald Reagan,'' Chubb concludes.
Professor Moore in New Hampshire, who blames ``shallow coverage by television'' for some of the public's discontent, doubts that the unhappiness is much greater than in earlier times, however.
One basic problem: Voters have only two choices, whom most regard as realistic alternatives. How can any two people satisfy the desires of such a large and diverse nation? ``Naturally, some people are going to be disgruntled,'' Moore says.
But the polls show that the situation has worsened in recent weeks. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, for example, found that two months ago, two-thirds of the public was happy with the current candidates. Then came the rash of negative campaigning, the charge and countercharge, and the lack of programs for dealing with tough issues like the debt.
``They both have characteristics that will generate votes for the other guy, but not for themselves,'' Chubb says of Dukakis and Bush. ``For many voters, 1988 will be a vote against someone'' more than for someone.