AS the presidential race between President Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton narrows, minority voters - including Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians - could prove decisive.
Although these groups are fragmented, both parties recognize that concern about the nation's economy is most likely to drive them to the polls.
While studies show that increasing education and income strongly influence voter participation, this year, high unemployment and concern about future unemployment could spur voters.
Among minority voters, there is a strong correlation between their economic status and their political participation, says Ronald Johnson, director of the American Studies Program at Georgetown University. "You certainly think differently when you're working your way through the welfare system and want the politicians to represent you, as opposed to when you have money and you're mainly looking for a better tax situation," he says.
Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, says that blacks constitute a large proportion of the blue-collar workforce, perhaps the country's most angry and worried group.
Working against this, however, is the "decrease in social connectedness, with more voters who are unmarried and less likely to attend church," says Ruy Teixeira, a Brookings Institution political scientist whose book "The Disappearing American Voter" will be released in October. Trends show that social disconnectedness makes voters "tune out" politics, he said.
Recent urban strife may not be enough to spur political activism. Mr. Gans cautions that "cynicism about the system may keep them from the polls" rather than propel them toward the voting booth.
Additionally, demographic shifts are affecting voting patterns. Even as blacks consolidate power, their numbers are being steadily overtaken by other groups. Blacks today make up less than half the American minority population. Hispanics and Asians are the fastest-growing groups - but they participate less in the political process.
Since the 1960s, blacks have woven themselves into the nation's political fabric. The number of blacks elected to all levels of government has more than tripled in the past two decades. And 1992 may be a dramatic year for black candidates.
Even though representation of blacks at the Republican National Convention was a record, Mr. Gans says that "90-plus percent of black voters are for Clinton."
In a campaign speech to the Detroit Economic Club, President Bush recently tried to mobilize black voters: "You should be able to have the American Dream ... I would say to black Americans: I know it may be tough in your communities, but you're leaders. You're willing to stand up for principle."
Johnson says that Bush's outreach is unlikely to touch many black voters.
"I certainly don't think that the Republican Party is offering much [for this group]; the Democrats may not do all that much either, but at least they have the big umbrella."
Gans offers another view. "It's going to take more than seeing Bush as the lesser choice to move blacks to the polls. There has to be a positive push."
Asians have fared far better economically than blacks and Hispanics, largely through their ownership of small businesses. But their voting patterns aren't clear. As an umbrella term, "the Asian community" is misleading because waves of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thais, Singaporeans with separate political views are fast joining the first, second, and third generation Chinese, Japanese and Koreans already in the United States.
Conventional wisdom has it that voter registration among ethnic Asians is traditionally very low, even when Asian-American candidates are running for office, and that the Asian vote tends to be liberal. The latter view is being challenged to some extent.
"The Japanese are the ones who both register and vote in the highest numbers," says Wendy Tam, a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Berkeley. "But their tendency to vote Democratic is not something than translates to Asians as a whole."
For Hispanic voters, the greatest catalyst "is that their vote may be the one that matters this year," says Margarita Roque, director of the bipartisan Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Both parties, she says, have been concentrating on registering and educating Hispanic voters in Texas, California, Florida, New York, and Illinois.
The Hispanic community is quite diverse, Ms. Roque says. There are few Hispanic issues, as such; as with voters in general, the group's turnout hinges very much on local pocketbook issues.
Hispanic voters have become increasingly marginalized along economic lines. With the rise in middle- and upper-middle-class Hispanics, an increasing number of Hispanics have joined the Republican Party. Still, the overwhelming number of politically active Hispanic voters have voted Democratic.
Of the main minority groups, Hispanics have exerted the least amount of political influence historically, says Ronald Johnson. He adds that Hispanics "are not fully assimilated or aware of that they can do" to affect political change.
"We get a bad rap," Roque says. "It looks like we have an abysmal voter turnout, but that's not true." When most analysts look at the community's turnout numbers, she says, they fail to take into account that at least half of the 23 million Hispanics are ineligible to vote because they are under 18 or are not US citizens.
"The American Dream is if you work hard and keep your nose clean, then you can reap the benefits of the American system," Roque says. Latinos are working harder than ever before, she says, but the number of Hispanic working poor has continued to increase.
As a sub-group, Cuban Americans are a distinct exception. Mobilized by strong anti-Castro, anti-Communist sentiment, this group of very organized, highly effective voters are registered Republicans. Their impact seems to far outweigh their actual numbers.
Roque says that as "economic circumstances force us [Hispanics] to say, `enough of the way things are - we need a change,' more voters will go to the polls."
Latino voters cannot be taken for granted, she says, "Every new election is a fresh one for us."