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Clinton could be on way to landslide, campaign watchers say
STANFORD -- The final two weeks of the presidential campaign may determine whether Bill Clinton gets a landslide victory, a five-member panel of campus political experts said in a roundtable discussion at the Stanford News Service after the final presidential debate Monday, Oct. 19.
While there is always the possibility that George Bush or a surprise news event could deliver a "knock-out" punch to Bush's Democratic challenger, two Hoover Institution senior fellows and three Stanford University professors agreed that Clinton seems to have won a significant number of the middle-of-the-road voters who supported Republicans Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the last three elections.
Televised debates, the panelists said, generally do not reverse trends in public opinion polls, which have shown Clinton to be ahead for some time, with Bush following and independent Ross Perot in third place.
On Monday, front-runner Clinton switched from speaking about what he "would" do if elected during the first two debates to saying what he "will" do in the third, noted political scientist Susan Okin.
He also asked for a "mandate," said Steven Chaffee, professor of communication. "Using that word is very significant - he wants what Ronald Reagan and FDR got, and those are two of the most successful [reform] presidents of our time."
Noted Hoover fellow Annelise Anderson: "We have a candidate who looks as if he is going to win by a landslide, and he is not an incumbent president." When incumbents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan got landslides, she said, "we knew what we were getting. This time we don't."
What she really wanted the press to ask Clinton in the final debate, Anderson said, was for the name of his secretary of the treasury, the details of his health plan and "what it really means to say you are going to have a national police corps. . . . The press would probably love to ask these questions, but they have to go through this exercise."
Clinton has "sprung loose" a group of middle-of-the road voters who voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980, said Hoover senior fellow Martin Anderson, who was a domestic policy adviser to Reagan. Anderson blamed Bush's poor showing partly on the failure of his campaign to communicate his economic program but also said that Clinton has been effective at "moving over and grabbing all the [issues] in the middle" such as "cost control."
He called Bush's campaign "blazingly incompetent."
Political scientist Richard Brody referred to monthly opinion polls conducted by the New York Times and CBS during Bush's term in office.
"There has been a stalling - and maybe an ending - in the growth of the attraction of the Republican Party to young Americans who are politically more sophisticated, a little more interested and so on" since Bush took office, he said.
"That group was helping to build the ranks of the Republican Party [during the Reagan years], and that's simply stopped."
Televised debates produce little new information for those who have been following the campaign all along, and they are even less likely to deliver "knock-out blows" to any candidate, Brody and Chaffee said. Both study how Americans form political opinions, with Chaffee's work specifically focused on how mass media influence the process.
"The purpose of debates is not to give the press a scoop or something we haven't heard before," Chaffee said, "but rather to reach the remaining voters, who may be fairly few by now, who haven't heard" the candidates' main ideas before.
"Never in the history of debates has anyone delivered a knock-out punch," he said.
Brody agreed that comparing presidential debates to prizefights is a mistake because "each candidate has a different goal he is trying to achieve, so it's entirely conceivable they can all improve on that goal or at least not make their situation worse."
Clinton's goal was to appear presidential and brush off Bush attacks that he was wishy-washy, panelists said. Bush's goal was to defend his record and plant the seeds of doubt about Clinton. Perot's goal was less clear, some panelists said, although most agreed his main theme was that government by political parties had led to gridlock.
Perot's campaign, Chaffee said, may represent the "crystallization" of three long-term political trends that may be enhanced by television. Those include the importance of individual candidates over parties, of presidential candidates over all others, and of federal office over state and local government.
"Everything else is in the shadow but these individuals, and the debates seem to enhance that," he said.
The central piece of Perot's campaign has been to suggest the political process is in "gridlock," and his solution is similar to Maoism, Brody said.
"Mao said that what the political elite [should do] is go out and learn from the masses. . . . Perot has the essence of the program down pat," Brody said. "But it didn't work in China and it wouldn't work in Washington."
Brody said he had expected Perot running-mate James Stockdale to make a positive impression during the vice presidential debate because he demonstrated that the party candidates - Dan Quayle and Al Gore - were "in gridlock."
"I was dead wrong," Brody said. "He did so badly in the eyes of the American people that it reflected poorly on Perot's choice of him."
Quayle, on the other hand, "recreated his image entirely with the American people" in the vice presidential debate, Chaffee said.
"I think Quayle has used the debate to his advantage more than anybody else to set himself up as a plausible candidate for 1996," he said.
While the economy has become the most important issue in this race, panelists said that other issues may be important to undecided voters. Okin, whose work is on political theories of justice, said she felt both Bush and Perot did not make a positive impression on women who are concerned about equality. She particularly criticized the president for gesturing toward his wife in the second debate " as if men earn and women spend" when he was asked a question about the size of his salary. "Mrs. Bush did not look very pleased."
Such responses by the president may, however, win him just as many votes as they lose him, Chaffee said.
"Republican women who have been pro-choice for a long time" may be less willing to vote for Bush in this election, Brody said, because they aren't as satisfied with his performance on the economy.
"I don't presume to speak for women, but that would be consistent" with the way voters generally act when faced with making choices between issues, he said.
Martin Anderson and Brody sharply disagreed about the advisability of long campaigns. Anderson argued that the electorate needs a long time to make up its mind on policy issues and noted that Perot was leading in the polls last June.
"The campaigns are just way too long," Brody said, "and nothing can be done about it, unless you go back to candidates being selected by the party and not by the people."
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