No One Has Blue-Collar Vote Buttoned Up

WHO do you like for president?

A collective groan goes up from the group of strikers outside a General Motors brake plant here. The strike, which has shut down much of GM auto production across North America, is of more immediate concern than presidential politics. But on the eve of the industrial Midwest's first primaries, this group is not lacking for opinions.

"I'll probably go for [Bob] Dole," says Paul Doggett, a quality-control specialist and a registered independent.

"I have no idea who I'll vote for," says Tim Bolin, who makes brake shoes and is an independent. "All I know is I'm against anything that takes jobs out of this country."

Someone else says President Clinton, and a few others don't plan to vote. One hasn't paid any attention.

This small, unscientific sampling of white, working-class sentiment demonstrates some larger truths in the politics of the mid-1990s: Voters aren't happy with their choices and, in the blue-collar world, those who do go to the polls are all over the political map.

Political analysts identify blue-collar voters as a key swing group that could decide the November election. In Ohio, a swing state whose vote typically mirrors the national result, working-class trends could determine how the state goes.

White House pollster Stanley Greenberg, who has studied blue-collar voters, calls this a crucial group for Clinton to win back. Even though the president is far ahead of Senator Dole in polls gauging the views of the entire electorate, the white working class is still in the Republican column, says Mr. Greenberg, who defines working class as people without college degrees.

In the historic 1994 elections, it was the noncollege-educated voters who made the difference in turning control of Congress over to the Republicans. But polls show signs of disenchantment with the Republican Congress.

"These voters are up for grabs," says Greenberg. To win in November, he adds, Clinton doesn't have to win a majority of working-class voters, but he does need to woo enough of them back to the Democratic column. He identifies taxes and "big government" as issues important to this group.

There are some who will never vote for Clinton. "I have a lot of colleagues who vote single issue, be it pro-life or guns," says Len Hayes, a union activist at United Auto Workers Local 696 near the GM brake plant in Dayton. But Mr. Hayes, a Democrat and a gun-owner, says he's sticking with Clinton.

"The bottom line is, if crime gets bad enough, there's going to be gun control," he says.

Buchanan not a contender

Interestingly, none of the workers interviewed mentioned Pat Buchanan, the populist Republican candidate whose positions most closely reflect the desires of many working-class voters, such as opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Political observers suggest that if these workers had been interviewed a few weeks earlier, Mr. Buchanan might have come up, but he has been dropping daily in regional tracking polls and is no longer seen as a serious presidential choice.

How to appeal?

The question for Dole and Clinton is how to appeal to blue-collar voters. Both support NAFTA and other free-trade policies, which makes the possible entrance of the anti-NAFTA Ross Perot into the race as a third-party candidate potentially damaging to both the mainstream party candidates.

"If Dole makes an overt plea to the working class, he risks alienating Wall Street and big business," says Stephen Bennett, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati.

"If Clinton were to appeal to organized labor, he risks alienating some of his client groups, such as blacks and environmentalists," he says. "He also needs the financial backing of the business community."

Professor Bennett notes that Dole already demonstrated how removed he is from class-based politics when he remarked in New Hampshire that he didn't realize jobs and trade would be an important issue.

Diversity in the ranks

What has marked the working-class vote in the last 20 years is the diversity of its political expression as it has branched out from its traditional Democratic base: Many voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980. Many voted for Perot in 1992. Many are now registered independents who consider candidates more than party affiliation when they vote. And many, especially younger voters, don't vote at all.

"The Reagan Democrats are not monolithic, and they remain an important swing group," says Steve Wagner, vice president of Luntz Research, a Republican polling group in Washington. "Their concerns are cultural, very broadly, what kind of community we are becoming in America."

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