Waterloo, Iowa — Up the alley off East Park Avenue, through the double glass doors on the right, and suddenly presidential politics fades from view. Gathered around two tables are about a dozen middle-aged, unemployed men. Every morning they meet here, in the back of an abandoned store front in downtown Waterloo, Iowa. They share doughnuts, cookies, and the news of the day.
The rest of the nation may think all Iowans are engrossed in the presidential party caucuses 10 days away. In fact, very few are. Only a tiny proportion of Iowa voters participate in the event, usually party activists.
One large constituency expected to skip the caucuses is the unemployed and the underemployed (workers who barely get by on part-time or minimum-wage jobs). But here in Waterloo, there are a few signs that these voters could play a much bigger role next November.
Around the tables here, presidential politics emerges only when questions are asked.
``My honest opinion: I don't think the candidates have the foggiest notion of what's going on,'' says Earl Rogers, a Republican.
``When you're out of a job, you can see'' the problem, adds LaVerne Patrie. ``But when you're not, you tend to buy the rosy picture.''
These workers don't share the rosiness. Laid off in the early 1980s when the Rath Packing Company went bankrupt, these men have lowered their standard of living. The company's bankruptcy cut substantially into their retirement benefits. Most have not been employed full time for four years.
Typically, such long-term unemployed are too angry or discouraged to vote in large numbers, says Walter Stone, a University of Colorado political scientist. And this is probably even more true of caucuses.
``Going to a caucus is a fairly extraordinary thing to do,'' he says. ``It takes a certain amount of effort, a certain amount of interest and, in a sense, optimism.''
What makes the isolation worse for these workers is that Waterloo, like much of the rest of the Midwest, is starting to rebound from a six-year recession in agriculture and manufacturing. The number of property purchases is up. Unemployment is down. The 1987 rate of 7.5 percent for the county is the lowest this decade.
``I really believe it has gotten better,'' says Sammie Dell, a city councilman-at-large. But ``the trickle-down has not trickled down to everybody.''
The problem is not that there are no jobs, just not many that pay more than minimum wage, says Kevin Alexander, who was laid off from his janitorial position at Deere & Co. in 1984.
Mr. Alexander is particularly angered by a political ad by Republican candidate Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV. In the ad, Mr. du Pont says he will get people off welfare by giving them jobs, forcing them to get jobs, if necessary.
``What jobs?'' Alexander asks. ``Give me a job, but a job where I can afford to raise my family!''
These unemployed and underemployed workers have some positive things to say about Democratic candidates. Mr. Patrie says he thinks the Rev. Jesse Jackson has clearly stated the exploitation of the middle class. Another worker commends former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt for his recent criticism of IBP, an Iowa meatpacking company that these workers criticize for poor safety and labor standards. Still another worker says he will support US Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri.
But overall, the caucuses appear to draw yawns from the unemployed.
``You're wondering probably why these people don't go to these caucuses, why they don't take rightful command of the situation,'' Patrie says, drawing an analogy with pre-World War II Germany. ``I think this is the same situation as when four or five people with a gun took control of thousands of people. They controlled their minds. That's what you've got with the dispossessed.''
While they may not turn out for the caucuses, these dispossessed voters could provide a dramatic boost for Democrats in the general election, Mr. Dell says. Last November, for example, disadvantaged voters streamed to Waterloo's municipal election to elect a mayoral candidate who specifically targeted their needs. The candidate lost, but voter turnout was the highest in 14 years.
Whether a similar surge can occur across the United States next November remains doubtful, Professor Stone says. But clearly, the anger and emotion of the long-term jobless are building.
``Since Jim's been out of work, finding out all the politics involved in getting a job, I've gotten a lot more vocal,'' says Barbara Banicky, who keeps her family of four afloat with a night job in a local retirement home kitchen. ``I'm not afraid to say what I think.'' Mrs. Banicky says she hasn't made up her mind whom she'll support for president.