GOP States Alter Political Stripes In New England Economic Slump

New England

IN New England during the past dozen years, some Republican states have tilted toward the Democrats, both parties have gravitated toward the center, and independents have taken on increasing importance. Behind this change of political stripes has been a rise-and-fall economy and steady demographic changes as the middle class moved from cities to suburbs.

Since 1980, New England - Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine - has undergone some of the most turbulent times of any region, with a spectacular climb to prosperity then a sudden drop to recession.

After six years of growth in the mid-1980s, the economy has declined since 1989, with rising unemployment, shrinking incomes, and troubled banking and real-estate industries. Thousands of jobs have been lost in defense-related industries. A growing, white-collar service sector is replacing a dwindling manufacturing sector. An altered populace

New Englanders are now older, better-educated, and more racially diverse. More women are entering the work force. Cities are more concentrated with minority and low-income populations, while middle-class whites tend to live in suburbs.

Voting patterns have changed as a result. Traditionally GOP states such as Vermont and Maine have become more Democratic. More residents are voting as independents. The service sector has produced an electorate that is generally liberal in social views, with a tendency to be pro-business, says John Gorman, president of Opinion Dynamics, a polling organization in Cambridge, Mass.

Except for New Hampshire and perhaps Connecticut, analysts expect the region to vote for Gov. Bill Clinton in November.

Former Gov. Michael Dukakis (D) of Massachusetts says the economy is a key reason. "Bush seems to be in very serious trouble ... because he has not provided any leadership on this issue," he says.

Rather than voting along ideological lines, residents are concerned with how they fared over the past few years, says Richard Winters, a political science professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. "I don't see an anti-Republican mood there. Nor do I see an anti-incumbent mood there. What I do see in the election is a real sensitivity to the question Ronald Reagan posed: What have you done for me lately?," Mr. Winters says.

Both parties are moving toward the center, Mr. Gorman says. The Democratic Party in Massachusetts is more conservative, with liberal Kennedy Democrats making room for the pro-business Tsongas Democrats of 1992, he says. Unions have less clout in the party due to a shrinking manufacturing sector.

Republicans have followed suit. The GOP is more socially liberal than in other regions, Gorman says. Bay State Gov. William Weld (R), a fiscal conservative, is liberal on social issues, while Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker Jr., a former Republican, was elected in 1990 as an independent.

"Each party has given up a little bit in a way that is not true of other regions in the country," Gorman says. In the future, New England will be seeing more moderates like Governor Weld and former Senator Tsongas or "mixed-bag types of politicians who have a kind of cafeteria-style agenda of positions," he says.

In the 1990 Massachusetts gubernatorial election, two "outsiders" won their primaries. Neither the Democrat, Boston University President John Silber, nor Republican Weld were favorites of party regulars.

"It was political independents that put Weld over the top in his party's primary," says John White, a political science professor at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Dr. Silber "is a fellow who is very conservative on social issues and is a believer of supply-side economics." Vermont farmer in decline

Traditional GOP groups in Vermont, such as farmers, are disappearing and making room for pro-environment Democrats. The new Vermonters are well-educated and many are employed in the white-collar service sector. In recent years, Vermont has elected Democratic governors and a fair number of Democratic legislators. Vermont's only United States representative, Bernard Sanders, a former socialist and Burlington, Vt., mayor, was elected as an independent.

"Maine used to be a bedrock of Republicanism and Connecticut used to be a bedrock Democratic state. Well, those old political loyalties have become unanchored. You have an independent governor in Connecticut and a history of independents running in Maine," says Maureen Moakley, an assistant political science professor at the University of Rhode Island. "Yet New Hampshire has remained solidly Republican and Rhode Island has remained solidly Democratic and Vermont has been transformed."

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