President Clinton and his Republican rivals who want votes in Eastern Washington this fall might want to remember a key lesson from 1992.
It’s the economy.
That was the message from one voter in four in a recent scientific survey conducted for The Spokesman-Review and KHQ-TV.
Economic concerns easily surpassed the balanced budget, a candidate’s character and taxes or government spending as the single most important issue among Eastern Washington voters surveyed.
That may fly in the face of hard economic data, which indicates unemployment is below the state and national averages and the number of jobs is increasing.
“That’s fascinating,” John Mitchell, chief economist for U.S. Bank, said of Eastern Washington voters’ concerns about the economy. “There’s been some slowdown in the growth of the economy but no real negatives.”
But reports of mill closures, a bad winter for tourism and an unfavorable exchange rate for the Canadian dollar all could influence the public’s perception of the economy, Mitchell said. And in politics, perception is reality.
George Bush lost in 1992, in part because many voters believed the nation was in a recession, Mitchell said. Clinton and the Democrats - whose campaign watchwords were “It’s the economy, stupid” - were able to reinforce those beliefs.
In fact, the economy had turned around early that year and was in good shape by the time of the election, Mitchell noted.
In the recent poll, the economy placed third among the concerns of voters across Washington state. That could be because of recent good news, such as technology companies opening new plants and strong sales for Boeing, Mitchell said.
Fewer than a third of Eastern Washington voters said they want to re-elect Clinton; 44 percent said they plan to vote for someone else.
More than half rated his performance as “only fair” or “poor,” while 44 percent rated his job as excellent or good.
“Clinton is not loved in Eastern Washington,” said Del Ali, an analyst for Political/Media Research Inc., which conducted the poll. “Whoever the Democratic congressional candidate is, I would not bring Bill Clinton to the 5th District to campaign.”
The 5th District, currently represented by freshman Republican George Nethercutt, includes the same 11 Eastern Washington counties covered by the survey of more than 400 likely voters.
In the statewide poll, the No. 1 issue in the upcoming presidential race was listed as the candidates’ moral character.
That could pose a problem for Clinton, whose administration has been sidetracked by questions about the Whitewater land deals during his Arkansas governorship as well as marital infidelity, Ali said. But the voters’ concerns also could hurt a Republican candidate if a scandal were uncovered during his campaign.
“It’s not just Clinton - it’s everything involved with character,” the political analyst said.
One voter in five statewide picked character as the single most important issue, 15 percent said a balanced budget and 14 percent said the economy.
“I’m delighted,” said Ken Eikenberry, chairman of the Washington state Republican Party. “Those are all our issues.”
Voters interested in moral character may be likely to support Republican candidates who demand greater personal responsibility and integrity and who stress the value of hard work, Eikenberry said.
But Jenny Holladay, a spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party, argued the GOP does not have a lock on the issues that voters said are important. “People want to balance the budget, but reasonably, fairly and sensibly,” she said.
Clinton has a slightly better job-performance rating statewide among voters, who are almost evenly split between those who say they will vote to re-elect him and those who say they want to replace him.
The poll also indicates state voters are unhappy with their GOP options thus far. When asked if they would vote for Clinton or any of three leading Republican candidates, voters across the state and in Eastern Washington repeatedly picked Clinton.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: President Clinton and the issues