Wellstone's Worries

The electorate: Round and round it goes,

THESE DAYS THERE is a genuinely ebullient mood around the Wellstone For Senate offices, a spirit that has not been harmed in the least by the recent polls showing Wellstone pulling away to a nine to 11 point lead. But what do the polls mean regarding the election next Tuesday? Almost nothing. I am obliged to repeat the recent observation of Rudy Boschwitz, who pointed out that he led by nine points in a poll taken just days before the 1990 election. In that instance the reversal was generally explained away in terms of a letter distributed in the waning days of the campaign by Boschwitz supporters, casting Wellstone as a bad Jew to Rudy's good Jew. In other words, a single internecine slur on Wellstone's character is supposed to have done in a matter of days in 1990 what it took months of Republican attack ads to begin to do this year: to turn the tide of opinion in favor of the slandered Wellstone.

          Not likely. The Wellstone campaign no doubt would attribute the disparity to the impact of its field organizing operation, which, as Wellstone himself has sworn on numerous occasions, is supposed to be much stronger this year than in 1990. In that case, Wellstone ought to win next week by substantially more than the margin indicated in polls. Here's hoping so. But of course there's another explanation for the poll error, which is that the electorate has turned so volatile that it's harder than ever to predict who will actually show up on election day.

          There are reasons to be concerned about Wellstone's prospects, lead or no. One involves an aspect of the Republican advertising fusillade that everyone seems to have forgotten. It's true that Minnesota has experienced an apparent backlash against the ads among swing voters. But that's only half the equation. Negative advertising is also designed to keep voters away from the polls, which generally helps Republicans, and there is no telling how many voters the ads may help to keep away from the ballot box altogether.

          Wellstone said earlier this fall that he needs 70 percent turnout to win. In 1992 the statewide figure was 71.87 percent, and '92 had two things going for it that '96 does not: a more or less credible--at any rate, visible--protest vote in Ross Perot, and a Bill Clinton who had not yet made himself known as a gentler-speaking Republican stooge. Here is something that you know and I know: The proportion of the people who are positively impressed by either of the major presidential candidates is at or near an historic low in 1996. But in most polls one is not given the chance to say this, and a majority of Americans would be too scandalized to tell the truth about their indifference to the election. They have been beaten over the head with their own supposed apathy enough to know better.

          So the pollsters are somewhat in the dark about the matter of turnout, too, and this year the question is further complicated by two other factors--the public's emotional investment in House and Senate races, which may or may not prove a referendum on the broadly disliked Gingrich Congress, and the motor-voter bill, which has made it much simpler to register. On the former count, Clinton has squandered an opportunity for his party. As Doug Ireland points out in his Clinton Watch column this week, the president has declined to turn loose substantial national Democratic dollars for congressional races despite his own massive lead. "He's like Lyndon," Ireland averred on the phone. "He wants every vote for himself."

          In light of all this, who can know what to expect? I would not be surprised if the nationwide turnout was 48 percent, and I wouldn't be surprised if it was 58 percent. But 70 is not an easy number for Minnesota. Wellstone's supporters can't afford to be lulled by his apparent lead. Come next Tuesday, he'll need every one of them.

          THE OCTOBER 15 Star Tribune/ WCCO Minnesota Poll that showed Wellstone moving out to a nine-point lead produced one interesting anomaly. When half of the respondents were asked to pick from a field of Wellstone, Boschwitz, Reform Partyman Dean Barkley, or "someone else," Paul led Rudy by just three points. When the other half was asked to choose from a full slate of the candidates registered with the Secretary of State's office--that's eight or so names--the Wellstone margin was 14 points. Rob Daves, the director of the Minnesota Poll, concedes that this is a bigger split than was seen in comparable 1994 polls from the Grams/Wynia race, but he says it is not a statistically significant matter given the size of the polling samples. He assures me that it is not an indicator of voter fickleness or volatility, however much it might look that way to a layperson.

          JOHN DERUS WAS at it again last week and so were his critics, belittling him for asking state Supreme Court Justice Alan Page to recuse himself from Derus's suit against the Star Tribune in light of Page's ties to the Strib's parent media company. It's a perfectly legitimate issue. The Page Foundation has received $65,000 from the Cowles Media Foundation, and Cowles Media President David Cox sits on the Page board. Now that's, uh--synergy, I guess, is the currently preferred term. It is also a timely reminder as to why we should not be electing judges: not, as some argue, because the people cannot be trusted to vote responsibly, but because campaigns cost money, and money is already far too big a factor in the legal system.

 
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