Taking pride in the election

CLOSE to 100 million citizens will go to the polls next Tuesday and cast their votes for president. It will be the 51st time, in an unbroken string reaching back to George Washington's election in 1789, that Americans have participated in the peaceful, democratic choice of their chief executive. Tuesday's vote will also be the 101st consecutive free election of the national legislature. This record of democratic longevity is unmatched in any other country. Based on the commentary in the closing days of this campaign, however, it's hard to detect evidence of pride and pleasure. The candidates are faulted for negative campaigning and for failing to address the ``real'' issues. The press is charged with hype, superficiality, and bias. The public is blamed for not taking more interest in voting and for allowing itself to be bamboozled by vacuous sloganeering.

A Panglossian view of the campaign and how, generally, we now pick our presidents - that everything necessarily serves the best end - would be foolish indeed. The system is far from perfect, and in this column after the election I will explore a number of modest proposals for change.

We don't, however, serve the cause of constructive change by exaggerating present problems and overlooking the many strengths evident in this election campaign.

Our system of nominating presidential candidates has produced two able and experienced politicians in the mainstreams of their respective parties. Despite all the negative coverage, there is some evidence that voters are fairly satisfied with the choice before them. For example, in a Connecticut poll completed last week, respondents were asked whether they thought George Bush and Michael Dukakis would, if elected, make a good president. Thirty-six percent answered no in the case of Mr. Dukakis, 28 percent for Mr. Bush - but only 3 percent said neither would make a good president.

I am one who has been critical of the campaign performance of the press, and especially of television. But I must acknowledge that I can't think of a set of press/television arrangements in any other country that I would want to substitute for our own. As cable coverage has been extended, viewers are being given more alternatives in what to watch. If the 30- and 60-second sound bites of network campaign coverage are inadequate, C-SPAN gives millions of voters ample opportunity to hear and observe the candidates.

The press feeds on polls and through polling encourages a narrow ``horse race'' view of the presidential contest. But there is more than a little irony in journalists - so often criticized for their insularity, ``pack'' behavior, and elitism - now being attacked for relying too much on a medium whose essential feature is its sustained examination of the views of ordinary citizens.

What about voters themselves? In campaign '88, they seem to this observer to be a pretty serious lot, who understand that picking a president is no beauty contest. As coverage has moved from one ``fad du jour'' to another, the electorate has continued to respond to more fundamental dimensions of the contest.

We hear much these days that voter nonparticipation is a serious problem - and likely to get worse, with the 1988 turnout plummeting from the levels attained in recent elections. I would caution against accepting the ``decline'' assumption. The most likely outcome is a 1988 turnout essentially the same as that of 1980 and '84. Stories appearing right after the election will, however, almost certainly suggest otherwise. Here's why:

Press reports published a few days after the 1984 election put the presidential turnout at about 89.3 million. But full tabulations available only months later showed that 92.65 million people voted - about 3.35 million more than first reported. Lots of votes, including many cast absentee, are not tallied immediately. If you want to know what happened this year, add 3 to 4 million votes to the total reported.

This aside, isn't it true that the proportion of voting-age citizens regularly not voting in the United States exceeds that in other industrial democracies? Yes, but there are a number of reasons for this that do not suggest Americans are either apathetic or alienated. For one thing, we are summoned to the polls so often. A British political scientist, Ivor Crewe, estimates that ``the average American is entitled to do far more electing - probably by a factor of three or four - than the citizens of any other democracy.'' A stable democracy with frequent elections, and with low anxiety about what will happen if ``the other guy'' wins, is going to have relatively low turnout in any given contest.

Of course there are problems this year in ``the making of the president.'' But it would be both unfounded and unfortunate to pass through our 51st presidential election without seeing it for what it is - an impressive spectacle.

Everett Carll Ladd is executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut.

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