New Research Shows Perot Voters Stay Together, Tough to Convince

THE 19 percent of the voting public that opted for Ross Perot in last year's presidential race will not go gently into the two-party system.

Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose candidacy in 1912, "Fighting Bob" LaFollette in 1924, George Wallace in 1968, and even John Anderson in 1980 - each pulled a significant chunk of votes outside of this system.

But never before has a third-party voting bloc remained so strongly unaligned with either party eight months after a national election as has the one behind Mr. Perot.

This is one conclusion of a new Perot-voter study - the largest yet - released this week by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), a group of moderate Democrats.

President Clinton needs to win the confidence of these voters if he is to govern with majority support, according to the backers of the study.

Winning their confidence, these Democrats suggest, will be extraordinarily difficult.

"These voters hold the key to the future of American politics," says DLC president Al From.

The Perot voters are pragmatists who want government to address serious national problems, beginning with the job-short economy, and get something done. But they are also skeptics who are angry and disillusioned with government, especially Congress, viewing it as corrupt, irresponsible, and ineffective.

A majority of them used to vote Republican at the national level, but they are even more negative about Republicans than Democrats.

Perot voters are "extremely skeptical" of Mr. Clinton, says Stanley Greenberg, a pollster associated with the Clinton White House and the manager of the DLC's Perot-voter study. To win their confidence, Dr. Greenberg says, will require a "sustained show of effectiveness" at breaking gridlock and bringing radical change to government.

AFTER surveying 1,200 Perot voters and conducting six focus-group discussions across the country, he says, "it's hard not to come away from this with a feeling of permanence." The skepticism and alienation of these voters with government and politics is "incredibly deep."

One of the most striking aspects of the focus-group sessions was the strong and immediate emotion Perot voters brought to bear against Congress. The words and phrases they use are strong ones: liars, cheats, not in the real world, tower of Babel. They see Congress as controlled by special interests and with little concern for average people, he says.

One strategy that would help Clinton with these voters, Mr. From says, is to take a more assertive role with Congress. To Perot supporters, "the worst thing that could happen to Clinton is to be captured by the Washington establishment."

Greenberg offers Ronald Reagan as an example of a president who took an outsider, oppositional posture with Congress but was still able to move a legislative program through it.

The study indicates that Republican leaders, and perhaps Perot himself, may be misreading the concern of Perot voters over the federal budget deficit.

Some of them in fact hold what Greenberg calls "green eyeshades" concerns over the deficit as bad accounting and a drag on the credit markets. But for most Perot voters, the deficit is a symbol of the massive irresponsibility of government. Cutting the deficit is less a fiscal or economic move than a "test of character" to these voters.

And Perot voters are not without frank doubts about Perot himself. They are concerned about his temperament and whether he could really get anything done in government. But they also feel no need to dwell on those doubts, since Perot is not currently running for office.

Perot is seen as a mirror image of how his supporters view Congress, Greenberg says: He gets things done; he cares about ordinary people.

These are not small-government, low-taxes conservatives. They want government to address problems. But they resent paying taxes to a government that can't do things right.

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