The Hart Poll

Article excerpt

If Gary Hart were to re-enter the race for the Democratic presidential nomination today, he would lead his closest rival by an almost 2-to-1 margin, according to a Gallup poll conducted for The Nation. In a test "election" against the seven candidates who participated in the nationally televised debate held early last month in Houston, Hart captured 25 percent support among Democrats and independents who say they lean toward the Democratic Party. Jesse Jackson was second among those surveyed, with 13 percent, and Paul Simon third, with 6 percent. Albert Gore, Richard Gephardt and Michael Dukakis tied for fourth, with 5 percent each. Joseph Biden was next, with 3 percent, and Bruce Babbitt trailed the field, taking I percent. All other candidates collectively drew 5 percent of the vote, and 32 percent of those polled said they were undecided.

The Gallup/Nation study surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,026 adults age 18 or older, who were interviewed between July 6 and July 19. The margin for error in such a sample is plus or minus 5 percent.

What are we to make of those results? They can't be attributed merely to Hart's high name-recognition factor. Indeed, after weeks of headlines about his alleged womanizing, lack of control, poor judgment, lies and dubious character, by the time of the poll his fame had turned ,to infamy. Surely there comes a moment when a high negative profile does more harm than good, when the benefits of visibility are canceled out by the negatives of notoriety. (Thus Hart's lead over Jackson is down from a margin of 24 percent before the Donna Rice scandal to 12 percent recently.)

A more plausible explanation for poll figures suggesting that a revived Hart candidacy could reclaim enough support to substantially lead the Democratic field is ,that Hart himself, his entourage and virtually the entire army of so-called experts, editorial writers and other pundits who interpret these matters to the rest of us may have profoundly misjudged something important about our country, our character and the state of public opinion. The continuing support for Hart reflected in the Gallup/Nation poll suggests that his post-Rice problem is not so much what the press reported as what it, along with Hart, wrongly assumed: that the voters are unable or unwilling to accommodate themselves to a presidential candidate who violates the conventions of running for public office-in this case, the one that requires him to pretend to be like a character in one of the hundreds of happy nuclear families apotheosized in television sitcoms, a sort of white Bill Cosby.

In fact, of course, the typical nuclear family no longer exists. And the Gallup/Nation poll suggests that a large segment of Democratic voters understand this and thus do not regard Hart's philandering, much as they may disapprove of it, as a disqualification for the presidency. Why should that come as a surprise in a culture in which at least 10 percent of the population is gay, 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce, 40 percent have been unfaithful to their spouse, X percent are celibate, however many are unhappily married or otherwise alienated, and in which even some of the happy ones don't care about extramarital affairs?

None of this necessarily means that we have seen the end of America the Repressed, or of the national need for hypocrisy in matters of politicians' sexuality. …