Voter Self-Interest Trumps Vision, Values

A NEW poll gives support to what some readers have been trying to tell me for some time now: that personal traits and values don't mean too much to voters when they are voting for president.

Currently, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll, Senate majority leader Bob Dole is viewed by voters as possessing an edge over President Clinton when it comes to leadership, personal values, and vision for the country. Indeed, the poll found that 70 percent of the electorate believes that Dole shares the moral values most Americans try to live by, while 59 percent think the same of the president.

Yet Clinton would be returned to the presidency by a decided 10 percent margin, the poll indicates. A strong majority of the voters, it seems, will be swayed by partisanship and self-interest. The percentage of voters identifying themselves as Republicans is down to a 12-year low, at 41 percent. And an important reason given for Clinton's lead over Dole is that "many voters say they want the president reelected if for no other reason than to have a check on the Republican Congress."

Voter ambivalence

What's happening seems simple to me: Two years ago the voters swept into Congress a lot of Republicans who promised them what they thought they wanted: a balanced budget, including more frugality.

But now the voters, or a lot of them, have concluded that they would be hurt by the changes in social programs - particularly Medicare - proposed by these Republicans. So they are going to vote for Clinton as a "check" on what they put in motion in 1994.

All of which reminds me of some wisdom given to me by a pollster of years ago who said: "The voters talk about values and character when they are voting for president - but then end up voting their self-interest." I can't remember the pollster's name. I think it was that acute observer of American politics, Samuel Lubell. At any rate, the words have stuck with me.

The poll also offers some interesting findings on a three-way race between Clinton, Dole, and Ross Perot. It shows that Perot would pick up just about as much support as he did last time - 18 percent instead of the 19 percent he got in 1992 - and that it would be pulled fairly evenly from Clinton and Dole.

I can't accept these findings. I recall that four years ago the pollsters were telling us that Perot's entry into the contest would cause Clinton and Bush to lose equal numbers of voters. Well, in the end it became clear that Bush was far and away the bigger loser to Perot's pulling power. In fact, political analysts afterward concluded that the defection of Republicans to Perot may well have been the chief factor in Bush's loss.

So no matter what voters are telling the pollsters now - and I am not challenging the integrity of this poll - I'm convinced that Perot's participation in the race, if it comes, will be bad news for the Republicans.

Perot's diminished appeal

But I don't believe that Perot will take an 18 percent bite out of the overall vote. I think that this Texas maverick has lost some of his appeal. Last time, to many, he looked like a Harry Truman figure. People liked his feistiness and his spunkiness. But many voters now view Perot as a spoiler, someone who can't possibly win but whose presence in the race deprives the electorate of making a clear-cut choice for president.

My guess is that Perot, while remaining a sufficient force to distort the outcome, would be down to about 12 percent next time, if he runs. He could, of course, make the presidential debates livelier. And political writers would welcome his entry: He's a very interesting fellow to write about.

And while I fault Perot for providing simplistic answers for complex problems, I have always regarded him as a public figure who feels that as president he would bring about better government. But I'm convinced that this time most voters simply won't take him seriously.

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