DAVENPORT, Iowa -- It's not officially ``election year'' until the calendar turns to 1996, but that hasn't slowed the parade of Republican presidential candidates marching through this city on the banks of the Mississippi River.
Like much of Iowa, the first state on the presidential selection schedule, Davenport is seeing its fair share of Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan and the rest of the Republican field.
They pass through town, meet with a few supporters, pause for newspaper and television interviews and move on -- usually without getting a real sense of what's troubling citizens as they make ready for yet another presidential campaign.
A few months ago, however, someone stopped in Davenport long enough to truly listen.
Davenport was one of 15 U.S. cities where interviewers from The Harwood Group, one of the nation's leading public issues research firms, held September focus groups with a cross-section of citizens. It was an effort to learn what is on citizens' mind, what their hopes are, what problems they face, what they think of the political process and of the news media that will report that process.
The just-released report by Richard Harwood, whose previous citizen-based studies predicted the cynicism and anger that characterized the 1992 and '94 campaigns, provides a fascinating glimpse at what to expect in '96. It's called ``America's Struggle Within -- Citizens Talk about the State of the Union'' and it was commissioned by the Citizens Election Project, an off-shoot of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism in Washington, D.C. Citizens in Davenport and other focus group cities saw two fundamental challenges before the nation -- and, to them, those challenges were inextricably linked.
``They describe an economy that has turned into a kind of quicksand, slowly pulling some Americans under, fast endangering others,'' reads the Harwood report. ``What is more, the economic rules of society seem to be grossly unfair to them -- from how corporations work with their employees, to who shoulders the burdens of taxes and budget sacrifices, to growing gaps in Americans' income.''
The economic insecurity is coupled with a lingering fear about the disintegration of families and values.
``People say that adults confront increasing economic and personal demands, and neighbors and communities turn inward, children are left to raise themselves,'' Harwood reported. ``A tremendous void is left -- filled by faceless institutions, television and its messages of violence and hate, and society's infatuation with materialism.''
In short, Americans deeply lament the state of the union. Their election-year frustrations could work against Republicans and Democrats alike.
For the Republican candidates competing in Iowa, where delegate selection caucuses are scheduled for Feb. 12, neatly packaged election-year labels will not reflect the complexity of people's concerns. Those candidates who hang their hopes on sound bites about ``tax cuts,'' ``welfare reform'' and ``bad schools'' without understanding the deeper frustrations won't go far.
Similarly, President Clinton cannot sing ``Happy Days Are Here Again'' throughout his campaign and persuade voters that all is right with the economy and the nation's social fabric.
In each of the focus groups, from New Hampshire to Florida to California to Iowa, citizens said they're running as fast as they can just to keep even. They believe too many American corporations are breaking their social compact with workers, treating them as disposable cogs in a profit-driven machine. They believe that in America today, the richer you are, the less you pay in taxes. And they believe the tax money sent to Washington is misspent.
Some Americans think the country is economically splitting in two; a nation of ``haves'' and ``have-nots.'' Remarked a Davenport man: ``We're becoming more like a lot of foreign countries -- where there is an extreme upper class, and a lower class, and no middle class.''
The focus group participants struggled with issues such as striking a balance between helping the needy and teaching responsibility. They're tired of Hollywood's sleaze but don't want the government telling them what to watch. They have concerns about the quality of education but think too many Americans wrongly expect school to be substitute parents.
Blame was spread across the board. Focus group participants saw the news media as mired in practices that prevent the nation from acting effectively on its challenges. The media worry too much about dirt, gossip and polarized public discourse, they said. Instead, they want news organizations to tackle what's really important, clarify the issues, do a better job of profiling the candidates (without picking them apart) and keep the candidates focused.
Likewise, they want political candidates to articulate a clear message and to stand by their convictions. Finally, they pointed a finger at themselves. They think too many Americans have abdicated responsibility for the future, aren't informed and don't take their citizenship responsibilities seriously.
Pessimistic? Not entirely. ``People know something is amiss in America, but they do not want to wallow in despair,'' the report concluded. ``Instead they want a clear description of what's wrong and a sense of what progress can be made.''
Will the political system and the news media fill that order in '96? Only if both institutions resolve now to move beyond sound bite mentality and listen to what citizens are really saying.
Still is associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison,
and project coordinator for ``Voice of the People/Iowa,'' a media-based
coalition patterned after Wisconsin's ``We the People'' project.
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