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Joseph N. Bell

Contrary County: Polls and Votes Don't Agree

February 11, 1989|Joseph N. Bell

Every few months resident Orange County pollster Mark Baldassare peers into our psyches for The Times and tells us what we're really like.

Usually the answers we give Baldassare add up to a picture quite different from public perceptions of Orange County.

I find that heartwarming, since we are rather generally perceived as socially and philosophically primitive and politically somewhere to the right of King Louis XI.

Each time I read the results of the Baldassare polls, however, the same question gnaws at me.

It is:

If the people of Orange County really believe what the Baldassare polls say they believe, then how on earth could we possibly elect the candidates we send regularly to Sacramento and Washington?

That gnawing became louder when the most recent Baldassare profile of Orange County appeared in The Times several weeks ago.

This one told us--incredibly--that Mikhail S. Gorbachev rates more favorably in Orange County than George Bush, and that a majority of the county residents polled believe that Japan and the Third World are greater threats to the United States than Russia or China, that X-rated movies should not be banned in home video stores, that the Supreme Court should not abandon its decision legalizing abortion, and that public schools should educate students on the use of condoms.

Since I happen to agree with most of these things, the Baldassare polls always allow me to believe until the next election that I'm not out somewhere on the extreme fringes of the society in which I live.

Then an election comes along--and the gnawing question returns. I'm going strictly on public statements made by our legislators--and a little seat-of-the-pants judgment--but I strongly suspect that if a poll were taken, not one of the people now representing us at either the state or national level would agree with any of the positions ascribed to their constituents as noted above.

It is mind-blowing to me that we could consistently and persistently elect people to public office who think so differently than apparently the majority of us do.

So I turned to the source for answers. And Mark Baldassare--in his calm, reasoned way--came up with some.

"While issues like Soviet relations and civil liberties are of interest to the people here--and all over the nation, for that matter--there are two other issues of much greater interest. The first is a package of taxes, jobs and the economy.

"The second is law and order. And right or wrong, the Republicans have the strongest image on those issues--especially with relation to concern about crime. We haven't been really worried about the Soviets or civil liberties for quite a while, so those issues are decidedly secondary when election time comes.

"Look at the 1988 national election. Surveys all over the country show that the majority of Americans are opposed to restrictions on abortion. It was even a campaign issue, but they voted for Bush anyway."

That didn't altogether satisfy me. Even in an area so overwhelmingly Republican as Orange County, there are choices within the Republican Party.

There were several Republican primary contests in 1988. Why didn't the candidates reflecting these more liberal social views emerge?

"The main reason is incumbency," Baldassare said. "It's almost impossible to unseat an incumbent. In the primaries where there was no incumbent running, the voters elected candidates who had a strong association with Ronald Reagan, which was a very powerful attraction last year."

I asked him if a candidate would win in Orange County if he deliberately embraced the majority side of all the issues Baldassare has researched.

Baldassare said he doubted it--"for the reasons I've already mentioned, especially incumbency.

"But you're also looking to the wrong place for the answer to this question. It comes down finally to the choices the people have, and that in turn comes down to who selects the candidates and what the voters are left with--in both parties. But since one party sets the agenda in Orange County, you need to look to who is deciding what candidates run for that party.

"Voters have to deal with the choices they are given. It's not something people generally have a hand in."

Baldassare stressed repeatedly that "what we pick up in Orange County, we see nationally--although we tend to have a more extreme view of Orange County politics."

I didn't find that very reassuring. I guess I'll still be in the fringes every 4 years.

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