The `x' factor: swing voters. Independents, ticket splitters lukewarm on both Dukakis, Bush
Warren, Mich. — Swing voters are expected to decide who will be the next president of the United States. Hotly pursued by both candidates, they still haven't made up their minds. There are two basic kinds of swing voters: conservative Democrats who have supported Ronald Reagan and independent ``ticket splitters.'' Neither group has been won over by George Bush or Michael Dukakis, according to national polls - although Vice-President Bush has made remarkable progress over the last few weeks.
To get a closer look at these swing voters, a Monitor reporter spent several days last week in Warren, Mich., interviewing registered voters on the coming election. Warren, situated in Macomb County just north of Detroit, is considered to be a highly representative area of the so-called Reagan Democrats - conservative Democrats who have voted for Mr. Reagan in at least one of the last two presidential elections.
Political analysts and a poll by the Detroit News say Bush holds a four-point lead in Michigan. But a poll last week by the Detroit Free Press showed Bush one point behind Democrat Michael Dukakis.
Perhaps more important for the long term is the fact that Bush's efforts to paint Mr. Dukakis as a liberal who is out of touch with this community's bedrock values appear to be working in Michigan. On the other hand, Bush is clearly not accepted as a true friend of the workingman, but he is preferred as the candidate best able to protect America from foreign and economic adversaries.
While statewide polling here indicates that about two-thirds of the Reagan Democrats now plan to return to their party, interviews in this blue-collar bastion show that most Reagan Democrats have yet to make up their minds. Most don't even call themselves Democrats, preferring the term independent, or they have jumped to the Republican Party.
Unhappy memories of the Carter years and a very personable President Reagan have shifted the center of political gravity for many of these voters. But an unimpressive field has left most of them feeling vaguely ``weightless'' when it comes to committing to a candidate.
``Macomb County is considered a weather vane for the entire country in terms of how relatively conservative, white, blue-collar Democrats vote and how they react to the candidates of both parties,'' says William S. Ballenger, editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics and a former state legislator.
Mr. Ballenger says the Monitor's interviews conform to a local and national trend. ``You met with a lot of conservative, white, blue-collar Democrats who are real nervous about going back to the Democratic Party.''
This reporter visited 37 households in Warren in neighborhoods considered to be strongly Democratic. The results, although not a scientific sampling, do provide some insights into how one group of swing voters is feeling. Of the households interviewed, the undecided voters outnumber those solidly behind Dukakis 3 to 1. Of the 37 households, 7 are solid Dukakis supporters, 9 are in the Bush column, and 21 remain undecided. Of those still considering, 7 are leaning to the GOP nominee and 4 are leaning toward the Democrats' choice. Local Democrats say the actual polling in Macomb County shows a 50 percent majority for Bush and 37 percent for Dukakis.
``I think people are still up in the air,'' says Paul Donahue, administrative assistant to Dennis Hertel, the local Democratic congressman. ``We hope to do better than that. Dukakis is probably the best candidate we've fielded in a long time. And if we can't beat George Bush with Mike Dukakis, I don't know who we can beat him with - or what other Democrat can ever win the presidency out here.''
Regardless of political affiliation, there is a general uneasiness about both candidates. ``He is too weak'' was a common description for both nominees. After months of campaigning and hundreds of speeches, most of those interviewed complained of knowing little about either candidate. Even when one man was preferred to the other, it was not uncommon for voters not to know exactly why.
Fewer of these traditional Democrats want to be tied to the party, many of them more comfortable with the label ``independent.'' This reflects a national trend of voters leaving both parties, a ``dealignment'' that has swelled the ranks of swing voters. ``I vote for the man, not the party'' was repeated often by Warren residents. Unfortunately for many of those interviewed, neither nominee measures up to their notion of what is presidential.
Nancy White is the Democratic chairwoman of the 12th Congressional District, including much of Macomb County. She says she thinks there is movement toward Dukakis but admits voters still are not sure about the nominee.
``It's still kind of fluid right now,'' she says. When asked what the Massachusetts governor needs to do to inspire voters, she instantly replies, ``He just has to get out there and start fighting. They have to see the man with some emotion.''
This report is based on the first of several visits to Warren, Mich., during the campaign.