Parties vie for South's `swing voters'
Charlotte, N.C. — A well-educated junk shop proprietor here, George Kallam, is the unpredictable sort of voter the Democrats are looking for. Orphaned young, he grew up ``very poor'' with his grandparents. In the GOP's Robert Dole he sees the competence to pull the country through coming economic turbulence as well as a concern for those not doing so well.
But he also likes Jesse Jackson's message, if not his qualifications, and distrusts the traditional Republican practice - as he sees it - of putting profits ahead of people.
The prize in Southern politics has become a diverse group of voters - roughly 15 percent of the Southern electorate - that voted for Ronald Reagan last round but remain persuadable by the right Democrat.
The search for these Southern swing voter has become a matter of survival for Democrats at the national level. Most election scenarios these days hold that without the South, the Democrats are barred from the presidency.
The goal of Democratic leaders for the Southern primaries coming March 8 is to promote a candidate who can win Southern swing votes from the GOP next November. The keys to these much-sought people are somewhat scattered.
``The swing voters are the white females,'' says Ed Cole, chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party. ``Mothers, especially, feel the fear that their children are not doing better ... about their sons going to war.''
But Democrats cannot afford to write off the white Southern male - a tougher vote for them to win.
The voter that Democrats most need to win back, says Frances Savage, a Democratic state representative from near Jackson, Miss., is the white, middle-class male. ``This is the guy who takes his kids to soccer practice,'' she explains. He might be a junior-level corporate executive, concerned about taxes and his family.
He is, she says, ``somewhat put off by the appearance in the Democratic Party that it's dominated by women and unions and blacks.''
In Charlotte, real estate agent and lifelong Democrat Linda Dyer is taking the battle to the GOP citadel - her own affluent, solidly Republican suburb - where last month she drew 70 neighbors to a meeting, many of them disenchanted Republicans.
``The Reagan thing is over,'' she asserts, forecasting a Democratic resurgence in the suburbs. ``It goes along with the whole yuppie thing. They've run out of things to buy.''
Democrats will meet friendlier territory outside the suburbs in Mississippi's small towns and rural areas as long as they stick to bread-and-butter issues and a down-home, populist manner, says Dean Pittman, a Democratic campaign manager in Jackson, Miss.
Avoid ideological issues, he warns. ``You're not going to out-conservative the Republicans, and you will lose black turnout.''
For a Democrat to win a statewide election in the Deep South, he must win blacks solidly and about 40 percent of white voters (45 percent in the upper South where the black base is smaller).
Two virtual certainties have emerged in Southern presidential politics: In general elections, 9 out of 10 black voters will vote Democratic, and 9 out of 10 Republicans will vote Republican.
Somewhere between those blocks lurks a diverse, shifting group of swing voters - from 10 to 20 percent of Southerners - those who have been inclined to vote Republican for president during the Reagan years. That this group voted Democratic in five 1986 Senate races in the South is the Democrats' best hope of a presidential resurgence.
The narrow margins of those Senate victories - each race won with between 50 and 55 percent - testifies how fragile those Democratic hopes are, how badly they need those swing votes.
Different strains of swing voters respond to different political messages.
The traditional place to find them is among working-class and small-town white voters without college educations.
Before they begin to listen to a candidate's message, he must often convince them that he instinctively understands the mundane hardships and concerns of ordinary folks.
``You've got to have, first of all, someone who speaks their language,'' says political scientist Merle Black. ``It's tough.''
North Carolina Sen. Terry Sanford (D) carried these voters in 1986 in spite of his liberal reputation, according to Dr. Black, partly by playing up his war record and career as an FBI agent.
These voters don't mind an activist government, if it is active in protecting their livelihoods, showing a strong military profile, and protecting traditional religious and family values.
``The question of school prayer probably troubled these people a lot,'' says William Galston of the Roosevelt Center, which conducted focus-group interviews with swing Democrats around the South last year. ``They didn't understand why it was prohibited and felt somewhat invaded by that prohibition.''
One problem for Democrats in tapping this group is that voter turnout is strikingly low among the poorer whites and factory workers. Larry McAdams, a Democratic Party leader in eastern North Carolina, notes that at a typical factory with 500 workers, he would expect fewer than 75 to vote.
Some recent surveys portray a different kind of swing voter.
Last fall, pollster Stanley Greenberg found Southerners who voted for Reagan, then Democratic Senate candidates, to be typically young, white-collar, and unattached to either party. Often this voter is a migrant from outside the South, conservative on the economy, liberal on social issues.
Patrick Cotter, a political pollster at the University of Alabama, has produced a similar profile. In education and status, as well as opinions on issues, swing voters more nearly match regular Republicans than Democrats, he says.
They tend to seek a candidate, Dr. Cotter says, who expresses the suburban virtues of competence and sophistication.
Tina Kuhr, an engineer from Pennsylvania, works in downtown Charlotte and rates the federal budget deficit her major political concern. Before Bruce Babbitt dropped out of the race last week, she was deciding between him and Albert Gore Jr. But she also liked Senator Dole on the Republican side.
Once president of Mississippi Business and Professional Women, Jean Ellis changed jobs so she could stay home with her children in Jackson. ``I'm very conservative when it comes to certain things, very traditional, but I do believe in equal rights and equity in the workplace,'' she says. She favors Dole, Senator Gore, and George Bush, ``in no order.''
One young woman, while she was a secretary at an oil and gas company in Corpus Christi, Texas, watched a line of salesmen - just laid off - pulling their golf clubs from their company cars and into their own trunks.
When her father's business in Mississippi faltered, she moved there with her husband and young daughter.
Four months ago, the young, fresh-faced couple leased a general store, where she tends her toddler and mans the cash register amid the sparse shelves.
Her politics center on jobs and social welfare for those in need. Her husband is more conservative, she says: ``He thinks people ought to make it on their own.''
Third of four articles. Tomorrow: The political regions of the South.