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The Times Poll : Hart Quickly Emerges as Top Democrat Contender

December 17, 1987|GEORGE SKELTON | Times Staff Writer

Capitalizing on strong name identification, Gary Hart has tapped into a large pool of undecided voters and quickly emerged with eight percentage points more support than his nearest rival for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, the Los Angeles Times Poll has found.

A nationwide poll conducted Tuesday night, several hours after the former Colorado senator had surprisingly re-entered the presidential race, showed Hart being supported for his party's nomination by 21% of the Democrats interviewed.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had been the leader in most polls since Hart abandoned his campaign seven months ago, recorded 13% in this survey, virtually tied with Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, with 12%. Following closely were Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, 10%, and Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr., 9%. Further back came Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt and former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, each with 2%. The undecided totaled 31%.

The telephone survey of 294 Democrats who are eligible to participate in their states' primaries and caucuses next year has a margin of error of 7%.

Only about half of Hart's sudden support was generated at the expense of the other Democratic candidates. The other half (11%) came from Democratic voters who had been undecided prior to Hart's re-entry into the contest. Dukakis and Gore each lost 3% of their supporters to Hart, Gephardt lost 2% and Simon and Jackson lost just 1% each.

Hart's well-known name probably accounts for much of his current backing, Times Poll Director I.A. Lewis said. "A lot of people who hadn't heard of most of the Democratic candidates the day before Hart got back in suddenly found they had heard of Hart and said they were with him," Lewis theorized.

Hart's high name identification was demonstrated when only 12% of the Democrats surveyed said they had not heard enough about the former senator to know whether they were "inclined" or "not inclined" to vote for him. Based on this measurement, Hart's name identification is as high as Jackson's.

In sharp contrast, the other Democratic candidates still are far less known. Roughly half of those interviewed in a separate survey the previous five nights said they did not know enough about Dukakis, Simon or Gore to answer the question.

Now the Bad News

But the bad news for Hart is that roughly half of the Democrats interviewed (49%) said they were "not inclined" to vote for him for President, and about three-fourths of the Republicans (74%) felt the same way. Jackson was the only candidate to score worse on this question, with 54% of the Democrats and 79% of the Republicans saying they were "not inclined" to vote for him.

By nearly 2 to 1 (62% to 33%), Democrats said they were "willing to forget" the damaging scandal that caused Hart to angrily quit his campaign last May--reports he had spent a night in his Washington town house with Miami model Donna Rice while his wife was at home in Colorado.

But the Democrats were evenly divided (46% to 46%) over whether Hart should have re-entered the race. And Republicans opposed his political rebirth by nearly 2 to 1 (61% to 32%). In contrast, people of all political persuasions last May told a Times poll, by 2 to 1, that Hart should not have given up his race.

Two Surveys Taken

The latest Times poll actually was divided into two surveys--one taken before Hart jumped back into the race on Tuesday, the other afterward. In the first telephone survey, spanning five nights, 1,826 adults were interviewed, including 580 Democrats and 532 Republicans eligible to take part in their states' primaries and caucuses. For the total number, the margin of error is 3%; for the Democrat and Republican groups, 5% each.

The second survey, focusing on Hart, involved re-interviewing 719 people, including 294 Democrats and 291 Republicans. The margins of error are 5% for the total number and 7% each for the Democrats and Republicans.

Among Republicans in the first survey, Vice President George Bush enjoyed a 17 point lead over Kansas Sen. Bob Dole in the race for the GOP nomination. The standings were Bush, 37%; Dole, 20%; New York Rep. Jack Kemp, 7%; former television evangelist Pat Robertson, 6%; former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., 5%; and former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV, 2%. There were 23% undecided.

Hypothetical Contests

In hypothetical general election match-ups, Bush ran best against Jackson, beating the civil rights leader by 3 to 1, 60% to 18%. Even Democrats sided with Bush over Jackson by 4 to 3.

But Hart and Dukakis also lost to Bush by whopping ratios of roughly 2 to 1--Hart by 61% to 33% and Dukakis by 49% to 23%. Unlike Jackson, however, Hart received the support of Democrats--by roughly 8 to 5--and Dukakis managed only to break even among members of his party in the simulated contest.

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