WHAT if the presidential candidates were George Bush, the Republican; Bill Clinton, the Democrat; and Ross Perot, an independent candidate? If the presidential election were being held today, would you vote for George Bush, Bill Clinton, or Ross Perot?" When interviewers for CBS News and the New York Times put this question to a national sample of registered voters last week, 25 percent of them said Perot, compared to 36 percent Bush and 30 percent Clinton.
If this is really so - that a quarter of the US electorate back the Texas billionaire for the country's highest office - then H. Ross Perot is the strongest contender on other than a major party line since Theodore Roosevelt ran as a Progressive in 1912. But we know it isn't so.
For one thing, the election isn't being held today. The same surveys that put Perot's strength at around the 25 percent mark also find two-thirds or more of the electorate acknowledging that they don't yet know much about him.
A poll taken April 11-14 for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found only 15 percent saying they knew "a great deal" (3 percent) or "quite a bit" (12 percent) about Perot. When CBS News and the New York Times asked respondents in a survey of April 20-23 whether their opinion of Perot was favorable or unfavorable, or whether they hadn't yet formed a view, 69 percent said the latter - compared to 21 percent who were favorable and 9 percent unfavorable. Nearly 30 percent of those who indicated they would
vote for Perot told interviewers in the same survey that they didn't yet know enough about him to have an opinion! Perot doesn't yet exist politically in any tangible form.
Rather, he is a vehicle for a substantial segment of those who want to announce that they are not satisfied with things as they are today - in a manner or forum where it doesn't cost them anything to say so. The last qualification is important. Telling a pollster you are leaning to Perot doesn't commit you to anything. Especially these days when party ties are generally weaker than they were in the past, saying you might go for someone other than the major parties' offerings can be casual indeed.
It is possible for large parts of an electorate to be so angry about the status quo, and so dissatisfied with the established political leadership, represented this year by Bush and Clinton, that they would actually cast their vote in November for "someone else," just to "show 'em." But most Americans don't reflect such sweeping anger or alienation. This means that polls at present are practically useless in gauging the likely real strength of a Perot candidacy. We have to look elsewhere. One place invol ves assessing the nature of the choice voters will face in the fall. One group will finally decide that while they have complaints, they prefer "things as they are" to any proffered alternative.
It's not chance that the Republicans have dominated presidential electioneering over the past quarter century; many prefer their approach. If the economy has strengthened at least somewhat by November, the status quo vote will be large, and will go to Bush. Another large group will decide they want a change of leadership. Where are these voters likely to go when it really counts?
Unless Clinton's candidacy encounters major new embarrassments, it is virtually certain to be the beneficiary of most of the "we need change" vote. Bill Clinton is a skilled and determined politician who will be the nominee of a major party. Dissatisfactions there surely are with him, as there are with the president; but in "the only poll that counts," Clinton seems as likely to monopolize the "change" vote as Bush is to dominate the vote of those who opt for continuity. This is the perennial problem fac ing third-party challengers.
The one thing that in theory could change things this year is Ross Perot, should he manage to convince large numbers of people that he is uniquely qualified for and suited to the presidency.
Polls can't tell us what Americans will think about Perot when they actually think about his holding the office only 40 men in all of US history have held. Only our judgments about the man himself can give us clues to that. Americans may not be as active politically as some would like, or pay as much attention to issues as textbooks say they should.
But they are not at all casual about the matter of who occupies the Oval Office. The public sets qualitatively different - and much higher - standards for the presidency than for any other office.
What do we know about Perot that helps us anticipate the public's ultimate verdict on him? A lot. Summarizing it will be the task of my next Monitor column.