Carter vs. Reagan -- why it might be close in the South

As the primary campaign moves to the Midwest, having given Senator Kennedy his second and third victories in New York and Connecticut, there are still political factors in the South that may well importantly affect the general election.Southern political experts are offering somber assessments of:

1. Why a Carter-Reagan race would likely be close in the South -- a politically fickle region when it comes to choosing a president. (In the event of a Kennedy-Reagan race, Mr. Reagan could be expected to sweep the South, based on Senator Kennedy's dismal performance in the Southern primaries.)

2. Why the strains of "Camelot" were drowned out so decisively earlier this month in the primaries of the Deep South by a chorus of voters for President Carter, the man from Dixie.

Most observers expect no lopsided results from the likely Carter-Reagan contest this fall. North Carolina pollster Walter DeVries, co-author of a widely respected book on Southern politics, sees a close race ahead. He predicts Mr. Reagan will move toward the center on issues after capturing the GOP nomination, thus narrowing differences with the President. Thus, forced to chose between "Tweedledum and Tweedledee," voters will give the edge to Mr. Carter as the more familiar quantity, Mr. DeVries suggests.

But others see Mr. Reagan capturing a good chunk of the Southern states in close races. They base their predictions on:

* A continuing, deep-seated conservatism in most of the region and lingering, under-the-surface feelings of racism. "Welfare" -- which Mr. Reagan promises to reform -- is described as a code word for sentiment among whites.

* A steady move toward electing more Republican US congressmen and governors in the Deep South. Donald S. strong, a longtime student of Southern political trends, recalls that the Ford-carter in 1976 was close in a number of Southern states and suggest that ,Mr. Reagan is likely to win Virginia and some other Southern states this time.

* So-called "hidden Republicans, " a term used by University of Alabama politcal science Prof. Coleman Ransone to describe those who vote Democratic in local and state elections and Republican in national elections.

* Inflation. This, Southern politicalexperts say -- as Mr. Kennedy has said all along -- will be the key issue in November, most likely to mr. Carter's disadvantage.

As he did in New York, Senator Kennedy scored well in the March 11 Florida primary among Jewish voters from the miles of condominiums along the state's southeastern coast. But Jimmy Carter overwhelmed him in statewide totals that day: florida, 61 percent to 23; Georgia, 88 to 8; Alabama, 81 to 13.

Even among blacks, Mr. Carter was the winner. Leslie McLemore, chairman of the political science department at Jackson State University in Mississippi, a state that gave Mr. Carter more than 90 percent of the black vote in 1976 (in a razor-thin victory over Gerald Ford), explains the lack of the black support for Mr. Kennedy:

Black voters know that Mr. Kennedy has "not delivered" much in his tenure in the US Senate. Moreover, the kennedy Senate staff has been "virtually lily-white over the years." Blacks also were troubled by Chappaquiddick.

By contrast, says Professor McLemore, the President has a good record of appointing blacks and is seen as "sincere."

Senator Kennedy looked strong in some early polls in the South, including one by Darden Research of Atlanta, showing him with a 10-point lead regionwide over the President. But that was primarily a measure of "anti-Care" feeling, says Clair Bourne Darden, whose firm conducted the poll. "When Carter went up, Kennedy went down" in subsequent opinion samplings, he notes. Most Southerners have never really liked Mr. Kennedy's politics or personal character, he adds.

The South is not that isolated, in many ways, from the rest of the nation, political analysts here claim. To voters in the South, as elsewhere, after Senator Kennedy jumped into the campaign under the relentless glare of pubicity, "All the warts and boils and things began to show up," says Thad Beyle, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina.

Except for scattered pockets of support, most Southerners seemed to feel uncomfortable with Mr. Kennedy. They saw him as a big spender, were offended by his strident speaking manner, and were bothered by his personal life, especially the Chappaquiddick incident.

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