Suburbs hold key to White House But in Ohio and Maryland, it's a time of uncertainty

September 05, 1992|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Staff Writer

Jenny Swartwood and William Mason are part of the new electoral majority. She is a Republican. He is a Democrat. Both are suburbanites. They could well hold the key to the presidential election.

This November, for the first time, most votes are expected to be cast in the suburbs. That fact is shaping the campaigns of both George Bush and Bill Clinton, and defining the political issues for 1992 and beyond.

It has made the middle-class agenda the core of both campaigns. The economy, jobs, taxes, health care and the environment are the shared concerns of suburbanites and the buzz issues for both parties.

Ms. Swartwood, 49, a teacher, supported Mr. Bush in 1988 but is currently undecided. Mr. Mason, a retired federal civil servant and military veteran, will vote for Mr. Clinton. If Mr. Bush can regain the support of enough suburbanite waverers such as Ms. Swartwood, he will probably win. If Mr. Clinton can find more William Masons in the suburbs, the keys to the White House could be his.

To gauge the feelings of today's suburbanites, The Sun went to the Republican suburb of Upper Arlington, outside Columbus, Ohio, and the Democratic enclave of Columbia, Md. What surfaced in both places was widespread disillusion with "Washington"; a sense of being overburdened by taxes; a

general frustration with the inner cities; a distaste for the politicization of "family values"; a general feeling that change, in policies if not personalities, is needed; and scant real enthusiasm for either presidential candidate.

* The dawning of the suburban era displaces the political dominance of the cities for most of this century, and the power of the rural vote in the last century.

According to the Census Bureau, 85 million people lived in suburbia in 1970, 101 million in 1980, 115 million in 1990. The latest figure represents 46.2 percent of the 1990 population of 248.7 million. With suburban growth continuing and voter turnout higher outside than inside the cities, the majority of this year's voters are expected to be suburbanites.

Maryland has outpaced the national suburban trend. Its suburban population grew from 2.4 million in 1970, to 2.8 million in 1980, to 3.6 million in 1990 -- the latter figure representing 75.3 percent of the state's 4.78 million population. Over the same years, its central city population dropped from 906,000 to 847,000 to 835,000.

Suburban growth poses a particular challenge to the Democrats, whose traditional strength has been among urban voters. Mr. Clinton has to find a way of selling a more active government to a constituency increasingly leery of the economic cost of government activism.

Mr. Clinton's shift to the political center, his embrace of the middle class and his pro-business tilt are designed to help him find favor in the suburbs, where moderation is as desirable as a family room fireplace or a two-car garage.

"Clinton seems to be more Republican than any Democrat I have seen," said Richard Herrold, 33, a chemist, suburbanite and scion of an established Republican family in Ohio. He is considering voting for the newly centrist Democratic ticket this year.

But around the corner from Mr. Herrold's home outside Columbus, real estate agent Robert L. Sorrell, a Republican, found scant enthusiasm for Mr. Clinton's program when he was host to a "subdued" reception the other day for 16 local bankers.

"A lot of these guys are very conservative," Mr. Sorrell said. "They are really concerned that if we get a Democrat in the Oval Office with a Democratic Congress, spending could go out of control."

For the Republicans, the suburbs have generally been a safer haven, but this year they are not to be taken for granted. Under Reagan-Bush stewardship, the two cornerstones of suburban life job security and home ownership -- have been undermined by the 1990-91 recession and its aftermath.

Unlike its predecessors, this recession has affected suburban white-collar employees more than urban blue-collar workers, as job terminations by companies restructuring to become leaner and more efficient have overshadowed layoffs by industrial plants closing down temporarily during the economic lull.

"I am just scared," said Ron Schoemer, a credit union officer and middle-aged family man who voted for Mr. Bush in 1988. "You see all these people being laid off who had lifelong, secure jobs, and it does bother you. A few years ago, you didn't have that feeling.

"When it comes to the election, I just think change is needed. I just feel maybe somebody else can do something."

Another view from Steven Buccino, 30, a Maryland carpenter, who voted for Mr. Bush last time, was initially interested in Ross Perot this time, and now is inclined to vote for Bill Clinton: "What do I want? In a word, change. Stirring things up once in a while gets new ideas going."

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