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THE TIMES POLL : Clinton Takes Big Lead as Perot Backers Shift

July 19, 1992|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

With the successful conclusion of his party's national convention, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton has raced ahead of President Bush in voter support, opening one of the largest leads for any Democratic presidential nominee in the last 40 years, a new Los Angeles Times Poll has found.

In the survey, conducted last Thursday and Friday, Clinton leads Bush by 52% to 32%. Clinton's lead is based in part on a strong shift of support for him among Ross Perot backers.

However, some of those who were for Perot--who announced last Thursday that he would not run for President--continued to express interest in the Texas industrialist. In the first flush of disappointment at his decision, nearly three out of five Perot supporters said they would still consider voting for him if his name appears on the ballot in their state.

On Friday night, Perot said he would leave his name on the ballot in the states where it has qualified if that is his supporters' wish. And he urged his backers to continue efforts to get him on the ballot in other states.

In the past 10 presidential elections, only two Democratic nominees have enjoyed a wider advantage than Clinton's current 20-percentage-point lead at any point in the campaign: Lyndon B. Johnson, whose 36-point lead in a midsummer poll culminated in a landslide win in 1964, and Jimmy Carter, who saw a 33-point post-convention margin virtually evaporate before squeezing out a two-point victory in 1976.

The Democrats' 1988 nominee, Michael S. Dukakis, approached Clinton's advantage when he amassed a 17-point lead over then-Vice President Bush at this point four years ago. But that lead quickly vanished in the face of a withering Republican attack, and Dukakis lost decisively.

Still, Clinton's advantage at the outset of the general election is a formidable one. "I always say that polls like this are a souffle--they have a lot of air in them," said James Carville, a senior strategist for Clinton. "But the thing you have to remember is that even when a souffle collapses, it still leaves something in the bowl."

Bush advisers did their best to dismiss Clinton's post-convention boost as ephemeral. But there was a mood of considerable frustration among them that the Times Poll and other surveys also showed Bush's unfavorable ratings and voter pessimism about the course of the nation reaching extraordinarily high levels.

"We've got to get out there in the campaign mode before that dynamic changes," a Bush strategist said.

The Times Poll, supervised by John Brennan, surveyed 1,067 registered voters. It has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.

Two principal factors propelled Clinton's rapid ascent in the survey. One is the dramatic move in his direction by former Perot supporters, who made up 27% of those questioned in a Times Poll conducted just prior to the Democratic Convention. In the most recent poll, about three-fifths of former Perot supporters said they would now back Clinton if he and Bush are their only choices. Just two out of 10 of those voters said they would support Bush in that situation.

The second key factor is a powerful consolidation by Democrats behind their nominee. In a Times Poll taken on the eve of the convention, just under three out of five Democrats said they intended to support Clinton in a three-man race. But in a head-to-head contest with Bush, Clinton is now drawing the votes of more than eight out of 10 Democrats.

Overall, Clinton gained four percentage points and Bush lost 10 points from the Times Poll conducted just before the convention. In that survey, when voters were asked how they would cast their ballot in a two-man race without Perot, Clinton led the President, 48% to 42%. The three-way race was a virtual tie, with Clinton, Bush and Perot all clustered just below 30%.

The erosion of seemingly insurmountable leads for Carter and Dukakis underscores the tenuousness of large post-convention leads--particularly for Democrats. Indeed, Clinton's 20-point advantage in the two-night Times Poll was less than his 23-to-29-point margins in surveys conducted solely on Thursday--the night he gave his acceptance speech at the convention.

Also, a substantial 13% of the electorate remains undecided in the Times survey.

But the new poll leaves little doubt that Bush faces a rugged electoral environment in which to make his case. In fact, the data suggests that with Perot no longer an active participant in the contest, the two-man race could evolve into a straightforward referendum on voters' assessment of the nation's basic direction. And that prospect is troublesome for Bush.

Just 19% of those polled said they believe that the nation is on the right track; 74% said the country is moving in the wrong direction. This ranks among the most pessimistic figures recorded for this question in a Times Poll during Bush's presidency. It also approaches the levels of dissatisfaction during the last year of Carter's presidency in 1980.

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