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An Unusual Election Year Concludes with Vote Today

By Dan Balz and Richard Morin
The Washington Post

Five months ago, Doug Dollar, a young cabinetmaker from Sacramento, Calif., was politically AWOL. He had never voted and doubted he ever would. "Guess what?" he said with a laugh over the weekend. "I'm actually voting."

A year ago, Maureen Reed of Kenosha, Wis., was the archetype of the disaffected voter. "I've joined the ranks of the cynical," she said. "Can you tell me any time when an average person made a difference?"

Reminded of her comment last week, she said, "I don't feel the same." Drawn by television coverage and "the talk show stuff" with the candidates, Reed is now engaged. "It let me into the system," she said.

In October 1991, John Horn of Charlotte, N.C., said the political system was "so messed up, it's depressing." After closely watching the fall campaign, Horn said last week, "I really feel helpless. I don't think either major candidate has addressed the problems that we have."

On election morning, it is customary to trot out a familiar cliche -- that, after all the hoopla, the campaign is now in the hands of the voters. Funny thing, this year: It's been that way all along.

They've been Larry Kinged and MTVed, assaulted by ads, turned off by talking heads. But from start to finish, the voters have made clear what they wanted the candidates to talk about, forced the campaign into unusual channels and demanded something different from the politicians and the political system. Monday, the most polled and focus-grouped voters in history reveal what they really think.

One year ago, Washington Post reporters spent several weeks polling and interviewing voters around the country. The findings were stark: Voters had lost faith in the political system, viewed politicians as unresponsive to their interests and desperately wanted the 1992 campaign to focus on big issues like the economy, health care and education.

Over the past two weeks, Post reporters have made contact with a number of those same voters, as well as participants in focus groups sponsored by The Post and others encountered along the campaign trail this year -- and conducted another poll -- to determine how attitudes have changed.

The most recent telephone poll, of 795 randomly sampled registered voters from across the country, was conducted Oct. 28-Nov. 1. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4 and 5 percentage points.

This is an electorate variously described this year as angry or anxious, frustrated or irritable. But as they prepared to cast their ballots, the voters presented a curious tableau of emotions: ambivalent, nervous, still dissatisfied, surprisingly engaged and vaguely hopeful.

Several things stand out:

Six out of 10 voters expect the next president to take the country in a new direction, while fewer than a third expect no change, according to the Post-ABC News Poll.

Ross Perot's candidacy, more than anything else, has changed the landscape of American politics and crystallized attitudes about what voters don't like about the political system. Three in four voters, regardless of how they plan to vote, say Perot's presence in the presidential race has been beneficial. Perot is the reason Doug Dollar is now a voter, and others made clear that the Texas businessman had cut through the clutter of the campaign like no other candidate running this year.

While voters are paying closer attention to the campaign, many remain unhappy with the negative tone of the debate and the issues that have -- or have not -- been dealt with. With the exception of the budget deficit and the influence of special interests -- two issues central to Perot's message -- voters said they had not heard enough about such problems as the economy, crime and education.

After repeatedly expressing dissatisfaction with their choice of candidates at different points this year, three in four voters now say they are satisfied with the choice of President Bush, Bill Clinton and Perot. Those who are not happy remain outspoken about their disillusionment. "Why don't you ask me which one I dislike the least," said Betty Hughes of Rialto, Calif.

Through talk shows and call-in interviews, voters have had a chance to view the candidates without some of the traditional filters of the media, and that has had a significant impact on the interest level in the campaign.

Some voters contacted by The Post said they especially liked the second presidential debate, which featured questions from an audience of voters, and others made frequent references to television talk shows like CNN's "Larry King Live" as helpful to them in sorting out the candidates.

When voters were asked whether the presidential candidates had offered "new ideas" about solving the country's most important problems, 61 percent saying the candidates had offered new ideas and 51 percent saying this year's crop had more new ideas than earlier presidential candidates.

Also on the relatively positive side, voters by a 56 to 42 percent margin thought the candidates had "offered a clear direction about where they want to lead the country." And better than three voters in five said this year's debates had helped them make up their minds about whom to support.

But the poll found that 50 percent of the voters thought this year's campaign was more negative than in the past, compared with 38 percent who saw it as more positive. And by better than 2 to 1, voters thought candidates were more concerned about "their image" than about offering "real solutions to the problems facing the country."

The survey, as well as the interviews around the country, suggested that Clinton voters were happier with this election campaign than supporters of Bush or Perot.

Among Clinton's strongest supporters, 61 percent thought the campaign had been about the biggest problem facing the country, compared with less than half of the Perot or Bush backers. In addition, 55 percent of Clinton's supporters thought this year's candidates had spent more time than past candidates in talking about the country's biggest problems, compared with only 41 percent of Bush's definite supporters and 40 percent of Perot's.