The Tsongas voters

April 10, 1992

Paul Tsongas was correct to decide not to re-enter the Democratic presidential race. Even with money available or promised on the basis of "draft" efforts by voters in Connecticut, New York and to a lesser degree in Kansas and Wisconsin, he would end up playing only a "spoiler" role, as he acknowledged. Jerry Brown's continued candidacy does not have the potential to tarnish front-runner Bill Clinton's presumed nomination nearly as much as does a Tsongas candidacy. People take Mr. Tsongas' criticism of Governor Clinton a lot more seriously than they take Mr. Brown's.

Furthermore, a continued Tsongas candidacy would prevent Governor Clinton from doing what he needs to do to make the Democratic nomination worth something: appeal beyond the constituency that has made him the clear front runner. That constituency has largely been composed of blacks, working-class whites and Southerners of all sorts. The governor deserves credit for putting together this coalition. He is the first Southerner ever to win a Democratic presidential primary in New York, the first ever to win a majority of both Jewish and black voters there. Similarly, in Michigan he won the votes of blacks in Detroit and blue-collar whites who had fled that city to adjacent Macomb County.

But Paul Tsongas is the real suburban candidate, the candidate of the affluent, better-educated voters of moderate views whose JTC presence in a November coalition is vital to a Democratic victory. Mr. Tsongas did extremely well in Howard and Montgomery counties -- beating Governor Clinton by 2-1 -- in winning the Maryland primary. The best Tsongas counties in Illinois, the one other truly neutral-territory state contest between candidates Clinton and Tsongas besides Maryland, were suburban Lake and Du Page. Without campaigning, he carried Nassau and Suffolk counties on New York's Long Island, prime commuter country.

Now that Governor Clinton has no tactical need to concede such voters to a Tsongas candidacy, he can appeal directly to them. This requires some modification of his message. He entered this race with the goal of broadening the party's base to those very voters. This was when it did not appear that Mr. Tsongas or any other moderate-conservative would be a serious opponent.

If Governor Clinton can revert to his original themes without abandoning his winning coalition, and can do so without furthering his "slick Willie" reputation of insincerity, he could coast to the nomination. Without the Tsongas constituency, he can probably win the nomination anyway, but he will be a weak opponent for George Bush in the fall.

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