Signaling widespread dissatisfaction with the choices in the presidential contest, fully one-fifth of registered voters say they would support Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot in a three-way race for the White House with President Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, a new Los Angeles Times Poll has found.
In a hypothetical three-way election, Perot drew 21%, compared with 37% for Bush and 35% for Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, the poll found. What makes Perot's strength even more striking is that only one-third of registered voters now know enough about the industrialist to have an opinion of him.
Perot, who made his fortune building a computer services company in Texas, has said he will seek the presidency as an independent if volunteers obtain enough signatures to place him on the ballot in every state.
In a two-way race without Perot, the poll found Bush and Clinton locked in a virtual dead heat, with the President leading the Democratic front-runner 48%-46%, a result within the poll's margin of error. In the volatile struggle for the Democratic nomination, Clinton held a 53%-25% lead over former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. among registered Democrats and independents leaning toward the party, the poll found.
Matched against the President in a general election, Brown did not run as well as Clinton: Brown trailed Bush 53% to 41%.
The Times Poll, supervised by John Brennan, surveyed 1,521 adults, including 1,233 registered voters from March 27 to March 29; it has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points. The sample includes 607 registered Democrats and independents who lean toward the party and 544 registered Republicans and independents who lean toward the GOP. The margin of error on questions about the sentiment of primary voters in either party is plus or minus five percentage points.
For Clinton, the poll results offer both encouragement and vivid warnings. On the one hand, he is running about as well as Jimmy Carter did against President Gerald R. Ford in 1976 and Ronald Reagan did against Carter in 1980 at roughly the same points in their campaigns. Clinton's showing also represents an improvement from February, when he trailed Bush 51% to 40% in a Times Poll.
Moreover, the survey suggests that in a general election against Bush, Clinton is positioned to largely maintain the powerful coalition of blacks and working-class whites that have propelled him to the forefront of the Democratic field. Against Bush, Clinton draws nearly 90% of blacks and evenly splits blue-collar whites with the President.
At the same time, though, the poll shows that repeated questions about the Arkansas governor's personal life and public ethics have created enormous hurdles for him to overcome. In the survey, Americans split 39% to 38% when asked if Clinton has "the honesty and integrity to serve as President"; 22% said they weren't sure. By contrast, 67% of those surveyed said they were satisfied with Bush's honesty, while just 26% doubted his integrity.
Those registered voters who think Clinton is honest prefer him over Bush by a margin of 71% to 26%; among those who doubt Clinton's honesty, Bush leads 75% to 18%.
As for Brown, his key policy proposal--a 13% flat tax that would replace all current federal levies--is encountering substantial skepticism. Just 40% of those surveyed back it, while 47% say they oppose it. Republicans split on the idea 46% for and 44% against, while Democrats reject it by 48% to 36%. And nearly half of those surveyed believe it would primarily benefit the rich, while just 16% believe it would principally help the middle class. Among those polled, both the middle-class tax cut proposed by Clinton and the capital gains reduction favored by Bush were substantially more popular than Brown's flat tax idea.
Fully two-thirds of those polled said they wished other candidates would join the presidential race. That sentiment was strikingly broad-based: 69% of Democrats, 73% of independents and 60% of Republicans all said they wanted more candidates to choose from.
That restiveness creates an opening for Perot, although it is uncertain how far he can take it. Perot's early showing is not unprecedented: Republican John B. Anderson drew 23% in a Times Poll at roughly the same point in his 1980 independent bid for the presidency. Anderson's support eroded, though, to just 7% on election day as both major party nominees urged voters not to "waste" their ballots on a third party with little chance of victory.
The same thing could happen to Perot if he decides to enter the race. In fact, only 12% of those surveyed said they were "very likely" to support an independent or third party candidate; another 16% said they would be somewhat likely to do that and 13% said their decision would depend on the choices.
But some analysts believe Perot could fare better than previous third-party candidates because of the enormous financial resources he could invest in the campaign to make himself better known to voters. Those registered voters who know Perot generally like him: His favorable to unfavorable ratio is three-to-one.
In the survey, Perot draws strength about equally from Clinton and Bush: Perot would pull 20% of those who would support Clinton in a two-way race, and 16% who would back Bush.
Howard Brunk, a farmer who lives in Pemberville, Ohio, is typical of those attracted to Perot, who presents himself as a brusque, can-do, crew-cut populist, despite his billions. Unlike Bush and the Democrats who seem cut off from ordinary life, Brunk says, "Perot is a guy who gets down in the trenches with the common folks." Brunk added: "What's been there hasn't really worked, so let's give something else a try. It can't be any worse than what we have."
Those kinds of comments suggests Perot's apparent strength at this point may be less a specific endorsement of his presidential aspirations than an expression of dissatisfaction with the political system and the leading candidates in both parties.
Indeed, signs of such fundamental dissatisfaction rumble through the poll findings like tremors from a distant earthquake. Just one-fifth of those surveyed believe the country is on the right track; 72% say it is off in the wrong direction. Just one-fifth of those polled say they trust "the government in Washington to do what is right" most of the time; while 78% say Washington makes the right calls only "some of the time" or "hardly ever."
All of the remaining contenders for the White House receive, at best, equivocal marks from the public. Bush scores well on integrity. But his job performance is poor; just 44% approve of his handling of the presidency, while 51% disapprove. That's a slight deterioration of the President's position since February, when only 47% of Americans gave him a negative mark.
On the economy, the poll offers some evidence of a slight upturn in public perception: For the first time since last June, more Americans think the economy is improving than believe it is getting worse. But Americans still hold an overwhelmingly negative view of Bush's economic performance: just 25% of those polled approve of his economic performance, while 71% disapprove; that's a slight decline from February and the worst economic rating Bush has received during his presidency in Times surveys.
Conservative columnist Patrick J. Buchanan, whose challenge to Bush has been largely blunted, is viewed favorably by just 28% of Americans, while 41% have a negative impression of him. Even a plurality of Republicans view him negatively. Bush leads Buchanan among Republican primary voters by 81% to 11%, with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke attracting just 2% support. And a majority of Republicans polled say Buchanan should abandon his now essentially symbolic challenge to Bush.
After his enormously tumultuous introduction to the American public, Clinton now presents a complex picture. He has crossed the first threshold: He has convinced Americans by 51% to 31% that he is "qualified to be President." And he leads the President on empathy for the problems of average Americans, with 47% saying Clinton cares about such concerns, compared to 41% for Bush.
But, Clinton has yet to demonstrate that he would shake up the status quo more than President Bush. Just one-third of those polled said Clinton has the "capability to bring about the changes America needs"; that's less than the 46% who believe Bush can bring about change.
On other policy measures, Clinton also trails Bush. When asked which party would be better for the economy, those surveyed backed the Democrats by a narrow 39%-36% margin; but Bush narrowly led Clinton 44% to 39% as the candidate who "would do the better job promoting economic prosperity." Bush split almost evenly, 39% to 35%, with Clinton as the candidate who would do the best job holding down taxes. And by a resounding 72%-15% margin, those polled believe Bush would do a better job than Clinton managing foreign affairs.
By far, though, Clinton's biggest problem is doubts about his character. Overall, 38% of Americans said they had an unfavorable opinion of Clinton, as compared with just 40% who viewed him favorably. Those who said they had an unfavorable opinion of Clinton were then asked, without prompting in an open-ended question, what influenced their view: 52% cited a lack of honesty and integrity, another 28% raised the unsubstantiated allegations of marital infidelity lodged against him and 15% said that he was "slick."
"I think clearly he's a liar," said Russell Davis, a computer programmer from St. Petersburg, Fla., who ordinarily votes Democratic. "I wasn't there but I have to think the whole thing with Gennifer Flowers happened . . . I don't think lying is unusual in politics. But I don't want to have the feeling that someone is a liar before I vote for him. And I just don't trust him."
On the other hand, Clinton's determination in standing up to the repeated allegations lodged against him have impressed others. In the open-ended question assessing opinions of Clinton, one of his strongest suits was the perception that he was tough and a strong leader--though the number of respondents citing those traits was only about one-third as large as those who questioned his honesty. "I like that he's stood up to it," said Burt Nicholls, a carpenter from Spokane, Wash.
Clinton's acknowledgment that he experimented with marijuana as a Rhodes scholar in England over 20 years ago came after most of the interviews in the survey had been completed. But conversations with over a dozen poll respondents found none who believed that revelation had much relevance to the campaign. Even Davis, despite his harsh criticism of Clinton on other issues, said, "It's the way of the world. In the next 10 to 15 years, you're going to have a hard time finding candidates who haven't in some ways been touched by drugs."
While Brown appears to gaining momentum in next week's New York primary, the poll offers little evidence that he has caught on with the broader public. Overall, the public views him favorably by a narrow 38%-31%. But, despite his insistence that he is leading a movement to confront the "corrupt status quo" in Washington, just 27% of those surveyed believe he has the capability to bring about needed change; 43% do not.
At the same time, almost one-third of Democrats echo the concerns of party leaders that Brown's candidacy may be hurting the party's chances against Bush; 18% say Brown's candidacy will help, and 37% say they will have no effect.
Most importantly, Brown trails on the bottom line measure: Just 36% say he is qualified to be President, while 39% say he lacks sufficient qualifications for the nation's top job.
For now, the poll found, few Americans hold a negative opinion of Perot. But conversations with poll respondents suggest that if he surrenders his status as a non-politician, Perot may ultimately face the same kind of withering skepticism now battering Clinton, Bush and, to a lesser extent, Brown.
How The Poll Was Conducted
The Los Angeles Times Poll interviewed 1,521 adult Americans nationwide, by telephone, March 27 to 29. The sample includes 1,233 registered voters of whom 607 are Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents and 544 who are Republicans or Republican-leaning independents. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list that includes all telephone exchanges in the United States. Random-digit dialing techniques were used to ensure that both listed and unlisted households had an opportunity to be contacted. Results were adjusted slightly to conform with census figures on such variables as sex, race and national origin, age, education and household size.
THE TIMES POLL: A Tough Race for Bush
A Times Poll taken over the weekend found President Bush and Bill Clinton in a near tie if the election were held today. Paul E. Tsongas, who suspended his campaign, also finished in a virtual tie with the President, while Jerry Brown lagged behind. H. Ross Perot, despite little exposure, would receive nearly a quarter of the vote in a race against Bush and Clinton.
If the general election for President were held today between George Bush and Bill Clinton, for whom would you vote?
Someone else: 2%
Don't know: 4%
If the general election for President were held today between George Bush and Jerry Brown, for whom would you vote?
Someone else: 2%
Don't know: 4%
If the general election for President were held today between George Bush and Paul E. Tsongas, for whom would you vote?
Someone else: 2%
Don't know: 5%
If the general election for President were held today between George Bush, Bill Clinton and H. Ross Perot, for whom would you vote?
Someone else: 1%
Don't know: 6%
Do you think George Bush has the honesty and integrity to serve as President?
Not sure: 6%
Refused to answer: 1%
Do you think Bill Clinton has the honesty and integrity to serve as President?
Not sure: 22%
Refused to answer: 1%
Source: Times Poll taken Friday through Sunday of 1,521 adults, registered and non-registered. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 points.