Dissatisfied Michiganders Turn to Clinton for Help

Many who were `Reagan Democrats' go back to their political roots

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE conservative Democrats who handed huge victories to Presidents Reagan and Bush in the 1980s came back to the fold on Tuesday.

Exit polls showed they voted 2-to-1 for Democratic nominee Bill Clinton.

The implications are clear here in Macomb County, Mich., home to many Reagan Democrats. For 12 years this fast-growing suburban county north of Detroit attracted national attention for its swing voters.

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Now, its Democrats are Democrats again, and its Republicans, Republicans.

"A lot of teens whose parents are Reagan Democrats say it's over," says Sarah Dunklau. They say they have come back to the Democratic Party."

Miss Dunklau, a local high-school sophomore, is too young to vote, but she spiritedly urged voters outside the Mt. Clemens YMCA to vote for President Bush and Doug Carl, Republican nominee for US representative. Both candidates lost here.

"I do know some guys who voted for Reagan the first time," says Willie Sanders, an auto worker emerging from the YMCA polling station. Now "all the guys I talk to at work are pretty dissatisfied. They are dissatisfied with Bush."

Many Macomb County voters are mystified by the term "Reagan Democrats."

"I don't know where they get that," says Barbara Zwolshen, a precinct co-chairwoman in Macomb township. "I keep asking myself, too, because I'm not a Reagan Democrat."

Some Democrats say that Reagan Democrats never really existed as a political movement. They were merely Democratic voters who could not accept the weak presidential candidates their party offered, these officials explain.

Macomb County offers some evidence of this. It votes Democratic at the local level. Two-thirds of its county commissioners are Democrats; so are all its countywide officeholders.

But until Governor Clinton, the county had not supported a Democratic presidential nominee since Hubert Humphrey in 1968.

When the Democrats nominated George McGovern in 1972, the county joined the Nixon landslide.

Reagan did galvanize Macomb County voters. In 1980, they gave him nearly a 2-to-1 margin, while Republican President Gerald Ford (a Michigan native) got only 56 percent of the vote in 1976.

"Just about everyone we know voted the last eight years for Reagan and Bush," says Bernie Vineyard, a bank supervisor in Macomb Township.

This year she is not sure who her friends voted for. "I know who I'm voting for."

Asked who, she replies: "Bush. I just don't trust Clinton."

Perhaps the most salient feature of the Macomb County vote this time was that it was so large. Some 75 percent of its registered voters turned out, estimates Mary Kotowski, chief election clerk of the county.

That marks a reversal of the steady decline in turnout since the peak year of 1964.

In the last presidential election, only 64.5 percent registered voters in Macomb County went to the polls.

In Precinct 5 of Macomb Township, voters waited for up to 2-1/2 hours to get a chance to cast their ballots.

Two people standing patiently in the cold were Duane and Lisa French, who skipped the 1988 and 1990 elections.

Why were they voting this year? "Older and wiser," says Mrs. French.

The couple supported independent candidate Ross Perot.

With such independent-minded voters, Macomb County may yet confound pundits.

Future Republican presidents may wrest away conservative Democrats, lending their own names to their Democratic followers.

Will the term, "Reagan Democrats", endure in the political lexicon?

Possibly, even though Election '92 has made it obsolete.

"One year the Democrats say, `we have put it to rest.' Two years later the Republicans come back," says Ken DeBeaussaert (D), who did last-minute campaigning outside the school to retain his seat in the Michigan House of Representatives. "Those of us in the trenches know it's day-to-day."

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