Poll suggests Democrats might prefer to stay home


NEW YORK -- A new poll of Democrats in Erie County (Buffalo) shows Bill Clinton with 24 percent, Jerry Brown with 19 percent -- and a bizarre 50 percent undecided.

Ordinarily, such a finding less than a week before an election would be charged off to a flaw in the polling method, usually some failure to press subjects forcefully enough for a choice. But in this case the poll is being seen by political professionals here as another indicator of the lack of interest in the New York presidential primary and another warning sign of an extremely low turnout Tuesday.

John Marino, the Democratic state chairman, has been saying he expects a turnout of 35 percent to 40 percent of the state's 3.5 million registered Democrats, down from the 45 percent who voted in the 1988 primary. But Mr. Marino also says he wouldn't be surprised if it fell to some point between 30 percent and 35 percent.

The next question, obviously, is who benefits from a small turnout. The conventional wisdom says that the candidate of the party regulars -- Mr. Clinton in this case -- prospers when the turnout is small. But Mr. Clinton evokes so little visible enthusiasm that there may be a different dynamic at work: the possibility that those who want to register their anger at the political system may skew the turnout in behalf of Mr. Brown.

The polls here have consistently shown Mr. Clinton leading Mr. Brown by 5 percent to 12 percent or more. But poll-takers have to make assumptions about turnout that may prove incorrect. One certainty seems to be a decline in black turnout from the level achieved when the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson was a candidate in 1988, which could hurt Mr. Clinton. Another likelihood is a high turnout among Jewish voters simply because they always vote heavily here, which could help Mr. Clinton.

The pattern Mr. Clinton has most to fear, Democratic strategists say, is a high turnout in the suburbs, where he has been a hard sell, and a low turnout in the city.

There is also the unknown of the vote for former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, whose name remains on the ballot even though he has suspended his campaign. No one expects Mr. Tsongas to match his 20 percent showing in the Connecticut primary two weeks ago. But he could be the haven for Democrats who don't like either of the active candidates -- of whom there appear to be many.

Declining turnout in the primaries has been the rule rather than exception this year. The total vote has been down from 1988 in every primary except those in New Hampshire and Maryland, both of which were carried by Mr. Tsongas. It is a pattern that concerns Democrats who fear they are nominating a candidate with too much baggage.

Promises, promises

One of the hazards for any Democrat during the primary campaign is the possibility that he will make too many promises to too many constituency groups -- and have to answer for them later.

That may have happened to Bill Clinton when he and Jerry Brown met with a group of mayors at Gracie Mansion and then participated in a debate on the problems of urban America. At one point or another, Mr. Clinton endorsed more job training programs, special education programs for welfare recipients to help them find work, increased financing for public housing, matching grants for cities with crime-control programs, more federal money to help hire more police, new programs for pTC combating AIDS and more clinics to provide health care for the poor.

Mr. Clinton did not provide any cost figures for his proposals, let alone any specific plan for financing them. But it wouldn't be surprising if the "opposition research" arm of President Bush's campaign doesn't help out with such figures if Mr. Clinton proves to be the nominee.

Dirty tricks?

Mr. Brown complained yesterday about a CNN report that callers to his toll-free telephone number were being advised of ways to get around the $100 limit he has imposed on campaign contributions. Mr. Brown said he couldn't imagine something like that because the ceiling is the cornerstone of his campaign to present himself as a different kind of candidate. Then he wondered aloud if there weren't "some kind of Clinton plant" involved in "dirty tricks."

Asked later why he offered such a hypothesis when there was no such evidence, he replied: "I didn't want to blame CNN for dirty tricks."

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