HEMPSTEAD, N.Y., Oct. 22, 2000 -- It would seem like the best publicity a congressional candidate could get: a campaign rally with the president of the United States.
But does a presidential visit really pay off at the polls?
A study conducted by the White House in 1998 found that much of the time the answer is: No.
The review of President Reagan’s campaign stops in 1982 and 1986, and President Clinton’s stumping in 1994, found that two-thirds of the events didn’t help the candidate at all. Only one-third actually seemed to have the intended effect.
Former White House Political Director Craig Smith, who did the research, said presidential visits often seem to be a distraction for those they’re intended to benefit.
“By the time the president leaves town, supporters are excited but exhausted, and opponents are excited and rested and that sometimes is not a good dynamic,” said Smith. “In the last three or four days of an election, a presidential visit doesn’t necessarily help like we have thought in the past.”
Another factor: the undecided voters key to a close election may be among the least likely to be persuaded by a presidential endorsement. While President Clinton’s job approval rating stands at about 64 percent, experts say that in some races, he could actually turn off swing voters.
“With these undecided voters, Bill Clinton is radioactive,” said National Journal political analyst Charles Cook. “They really don’t like him. They may like his policies but they really don’t like him.”
So what should the president be doing to help Democratic candidates? All seem to agree that fundraising is a wise use of his time. And fundraiser-in-chief is a role Clinton has embraced with gusto. While he has attended only two traditional political rallies since the Democratic Convention, the president has spoken at more than 150 fundraisers for Democratic candidates, raking in a staggering $100 million.
White House aides say much of Clinton’s political activity in the final days of this election will be intended to reach Democratic supporters while avoiding groups that might respond adversely to his message. Clinton has already recorded radio advertisements to be played on programs with a large African-American audience. He will also make get-out-the-vote recordings that will be relayed by phone to senior citizens and others thought to have Democratic leanings.
Bench the Star Player?
It would be a mistake to think President Clinton will sit still through the election. Smith says appearances by the president in carefully selected districts could be beneficial for the Democrats.
“There are segments of the population where the president is very, very popular: certain regions, certain demographic groups, certain cities and areas,” Smith said. “Using the president in those areas in smart events could help motivate democratic base voters make sure they show up at the polls and bring some undecideds across.”
The two rallies Clinton has attended this season were for African-American members of Congress seeking re-election. One region the president is devoting a lot of attention to these days is New York. He has scheduled at least three trips to the state this week to help his wife’s Senate campaign. Mr. Clinton’s job approval rating in New York is 70 percent, so it’s hard to see what harm he could do.
But Cook believes that, for the most part, Democrats would be smart to leave Clinton out of their election plans.
“Sometimes you have to bench the star player and this is a time when democrats have to do it,” Cook said.