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Perot's California supporters not enthused with Bush, watch TV
STANFORD -- California support for Ross Perot in early summer was "more a referendum on George Bush than enthusiasm for Perot," says Steven Chaffee, Stanford University professor of communication.
Chaffee's conclusion is based on pre-primary and post- primary surveys of 1,300 registered California voters in four counties. Perot supporters came mostly from the ranks of Republicans, Chaffee said, especially those who had indicated last spring that they were not ready to vote for Bush in the June Republican primary.
Perot supporters are also "more television dependent" than supporters of Bush or Bill Clinton, Chaffee said the surveys indicate.
"Television is the medium of personality, and the Perot campaign has been the high water mark of personality over politics," he said. "Perhaps not since George Washington has personality overridden political party affiliation in a presidential election."
Perot is one of very few serious presidential contenders to have run without a third party behind him, Chaffee said. Populists, Greenbacks, Free Soilers and even Republicans were third parties whose candidates made strong policy appeals to disaffected groups. Perot, in contrast, he said, doesn't have a party and "says he'll tell you what he is for after the election."
"The big questions at the moment," Chaffee said, "are which way will Perot's early summer supporters go if they don't stay with him, and what role will communication play?"
The study upon which Chaffee based his comments involves a series of surveys of the same "panel" of voters, a technique not generally used by political pollsters. The panel method tracks changes in voter preferences and links the changes to specific modes of communication.
The panel was drawn randomly from registered voters in two Southern California counties - San Diego and Orange - and two Northern California counties - Santa Clara and Humboldt. Voters were first interviewed in late February or early March, before Perot was a candidate. They were interviewed again in late June or early July, after Perot had declared his candidacy. A third round of interviewing begins this week.
The telephone interviews are conducted by students in communication departments at Stanford and the California State universities at Fullerton, San Jose, San Diego and Arcata (Humboldt State).
The counties involved have a larger proportion of Republicans than the state average, but the surveys generally found the same candidate support patterns as statewide opinion polls conducted at the same times, Chaffee said. Perot led statewide after the California primary, with Clinton second and Bush third.
"We were able to look back at who Perot's supporters had said they were planning to vote for before he became a candidate. People who later said they would vote for Perot came from every primary candidate's supporters, but especially from Republicans who did not want to vote for Bush in the primary," Chaffee said.
Sixty-three percent of Perot's early summer Republican supporters "were not ready to vote for Bush in February or March. That's why I say it was more of a referendum on Bush than enthusiasm for Perot."
Among Democrats, those who favored Perot after he entered the race came from all candidates, with the largest proportion (37 percent) coming from Paul Tsongas' camp.
When asked to rate the best and worst candidates, Perot's early summer supporters "indicated they liked Bush a little better than Clinton," Chaffee said. For example, Bush was twice as likely as Clinton to be rated best of the three on foreign policy.
"If these voters return to Bush, which I think is the most likely change for them to make, the race in California might be closer than political analysts now say," Chaffee said, adding that undecided voters are still a factor as well.
On the other hand, the study indicates that Clinton and Perot supporters talk more with other people about the election than Bush supporters do. Chaffee, who researches effects of mass communication on audience members, said communication research, in general, indicates that interpersonal communication is more persuasive than mass communication.
"That could be bad for Bush," he said. "If Perot voters are up for grabs, and if Clinton people are talking, that's probably to Clinton's advantage."
The survey found that Perot supporters are more likely to monitor the campaign through television than either Clinton or Bush supporters, Chaffee said.
"Perot voters don't read newspapers as much," he said. "The Clinton voters were the most newspaper-reliant group. Bush voters were the mostly likely to say they were paying attention to political ads."
More people watched Perot for at least 10 minutes at a time on live interview shows, such as "Today" or the "Larry King Show," than had watched Bush or Clinton, Chaffee said. "People who watched Perot also seem to have been affected in his favor - at least back in June and July.
"Watching the candidates is a different experience from reading about them, and Perot supporters from the summer are probably watching television to decide how to vote now."
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