Clinton May Carry Middle Atlantic

FOR evidence of the enormous changes that have swept the Atlantic region in recent years, one need only turn to popular culture.

The New York City of "West Side Story" that captivated filmgoers in the early 1960s was a far simpler place than it is today. The movie's story of ill-fated young love, backed by Leonard Bernstein's soaring musical score and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics, pitted the Jets, a white Anglo youth gang, against the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang. The Jets' leader lamented that the "PRs," as he called them, were moving in on white territory in search of influence and power.

In the 1990s, the racial and ethnic mix of the Big Apple is far more complex.

Competition for jobs and political influence is intense. Veteran Hispanic groups such as Puerto Ricans and Cubans face challenges from such relative newcomers as Dominicans and Colombians. In New York City, 1 of 4 residents is foreign-born. Asians and Hispanics are the fastest-growing groups.

Profound demographic shifts such as these, as well as social and particularly economic changes in the past 12 years, could give Bill Clinton a clean sweep of the Atlantic region - New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware - in next month's elections.

"Job losses in this recession have been as bad in the suburbs as in New York City," says Rosemary Scanlon, chief economist for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. "This has been a suburban recession. That's why polls show Bill Clinton doing so well in such traditionally Republican areas as New Jersey."

Though no Democratic presidential candidate has carried the Garden State since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, most polls now give Governor Clinton a clear edge there.

Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., says: "[Ross] Perot might hurt Clinton a little, but not enough to put the state in any kind of jeopardy."

In Delaware, where voters have picked the winner in every presidential election since 1952, Clinton holds a sizable lead.

"I think the reason is more economic than demographic," says James Soles, a professor of political science at the University of Delaware. He notes that the DuPont Company, the state's largest single employer, for example, has been steadily downsizing its work force.

In socially liberal Maryland, where heavily black Baltimore relies on considerable government support and where many residents are federal employees, the hard economic times also have given Clinton the upper hand. "Maryland is a state that does not dislike government," notes Eric Uslaner, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. "Even the Republicans in Washington's suburbs are very liberal."

In Pennsylvania, the results are mixed. Philadelphia and the eastern half of the state are going through the economic turmoil of the East Coast. Pittsburgh and the western half of the state more closely resemble the Midwest, which has fared relatively better. Pennsylvanians are pessimistic about the future of the economy. Clinton leads President Bush and Mr. Perot handily in this state.

The changes the Atlantic region has under gone were sharp during the 1980s when immigration took a marked upturn.

Immigration is now higher than at any time since the 1920s, according to Sam Ehrenhalt, regional commissioner for the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's also true in New Jersey, where 10 percent of the population is Hispanic.

Yet John Mollenkopf, a political scientist at the City University of New York Graduate Center, says ethnic changes affect elections only gradually. The process of becoming a citizen often takes a long time.

Hispanics and Afro-Caribbeans tend to vote Democratic, he says, but Asian-Americans are more evenly split between the two parties. A major Asian-American voter-registration effort is under way in New York City.

In terms of economic changes, key regional industries such as manufacturing, textiles, and finance have been cut back in importance.

The current recession has been "far worse" for the Atlantic region than other recessions of the last two decades, Ms. Scanlon says.

Those of the early 1980s, for instance, were largely "rust belt" recessions involving blue-collar workers, she says. She terms the current downturn a "corporate recession" and notes that such major firms as the International Business Machines Corporation and the American Telephone & Telegraph Corporation have been forced to lay off workers.

The big political issue drawing virtually all voters together in 1992 clearly is the economy, Scanlon says. She adds that it is likely that in future presidential elections - when times are more economically stable - ethnic differences may play a larger role in affecting the outcome.

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