WHILE American politicians express concern about eroding values and the economy in hopes of wooing voters, a new study finds that politicians may be speaking a different language than voters are.
Talk about taxes, welfare changes, and family values by the Republican presidential candidates and President Clinton illustrates the disconnection, says Richard Harwood, a Maryland-based opinion researcher who conducted the study. The candidates believe they are touching a chord. In fact, he says, they are deepening the "cynicism and frustration and alienation that people feel about politics."
"Tax reform, family values, welfare reform - [all] merely skate across the surface of people's concerns, and when people hear those kinds of labels, they say, 'These politicians don't get it. They don't get how deeply I feel about these problems and how much they affect me on a day-to-day basis,' " Mr. Harwood said in a telephone interview.
Harwood held 15 three-hour intensive discussions with voters in California, Florida, Iowa, and New Hampshire - crucial states in presidential politics. The meetings were held in communities large and small, from Los Angeles and Miami to Claremont, N.H., and Davenport, Iowa.
Voters want a president who understands what the average citizen is going through, but not in an "I feel your pain" sort of way, according to the study. They want leaders to give realistic expectations and to propose solutions that are attainable even if they will take time.
Politicians "don't have a clue as to what we're up against as working people," a Jacksonville, Fla., man said in the study.
A Mason City, Iowa, man said he would like to hear a candidate say: "If you don't agree with me, don't vote for me. But if you vote for me, I'm going to try to do exactly this."
Holding "town meetings" and group discussions with voters has become fashionable for politicians. But citizens who take part question whether they are being heard.
"Are they listening to us because they really care about what we think, or because they want our vote?" a Claremont woman asked.
The study found that people have the same skepticism when candidates use "hot button" issues such as immigration and foreign aid. "We have no idea if this politician actually cares about the topic or is just using it," said a man from Tallahassee, Fla.