Size of voter turnout can swing the election ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

November 02, 1992|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

PHILADELPHIA -- Dewey Williams, a 52-year-old West Philadelphia carpenter, confesses he didn't bother to vote four years ago but insists it will be different this time.

"I couldn't see where it made any difference for black people," he says of the 1988 campaign. "That Duke-what's-his-name didn't seem like he could get anything done. But times are hard now. I'm going to vote straight-ticket [Democratic] and see if we can't get more work."

With the 1992 election at hand, it is clear that one of the key factors in the tightened contest between President Bush and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton is the number of Dewey Williamses that may be out there. The turnout among black voters, in particular, can be critical in several states -- both in the industrial belt of the Midwest and across the South.

Whatever black vote there is, strategists in both parties agree, will split heavily -- probably more than 90 percent -- for Clinton over Bush. But Clinton has taken something of a risk with black voters by deliberately distancing himself from Jesse Jackson as part of his effort to project the image of a "different kind of Democrat" who could appeal to white working-class voters.

The operative question now is whether the Democratic nominee and his prominent black supporters have done enough to attract the kind of turnout that might make a difference. Here in Pennsylvania, where blacks ordinarily cast only 7 percent to 8 percent of the total vote, Clinton is probably far enough ahead so that it doesn't matter.

But in Georgia, where the black vote could be 20 percent of the total, the Clinton margin is thin enough so that the efforts of Mayor Maynard Jackson of Atlanta and Rep. John Lewis are obviously pivotal.

The size of the black vote is only one of several variables in the estimates on turnout Tuesday that poll-takers have been making as they show the presidential race drawing ever closer.

Of the Americans eligible to vote in 1988, only one-half did; if that number were to rise even 2 percent or 3 percent, the equation would be entirely different.

The rule of thumb in politics is that a higher turnout favors Democrats, the theory being that the Republicans are inclined to be better educated and more affluent and thus more likely to perform their civic duty consistently. But the question for the Democrats right now is not just the size of any increase but where it comes.

Another targeted group for the Democrats, for example, would be the 25 million women heads of households -- usually meaning single working women with children. As a group, they have not voted heavily in the past. So the question is whether their economic concerns or their support for abortion rights is enough to make them vote in larger numbers this time.

Similar questions can be asked about young voters. Americans 18 to 25 vote sparingly, but Clinton has targeted them heavily this year. Then there is the mystery of the Ross Perot supporters who may be deserting him in the end. Will they simply sit it out or find it possible to choose between Bush and Clinton? And how many of those who stick with Perot will be simply additions to the electorate who don't change the relationship between Bush and Clinton?

Still another intriguing group are the moderately conservative Republicans, particularly women, who live in the suburbs and were put off by the moralistic tone of their party's convention at Houston and its adamant opposition to abortion rights. Republican leaders say this group is still unsettled, but the real question is whether they stay home or are able to bring themselves to vote for Clinton.

The early indicators suggest the vote should rise this year. Registration has increased markedly in some states, as have the requests for absentee ballots. The staggering number of people who watched the debates on television also points to a higher degree of interest in the process than four years ago.

These are all variables that can alter the turnout markedly -- and that are probably responsible for the conflicts between the big national polls over the final week of the campaign. The outcome tomorrow could very well depend on whether Dewey Williams and others like him decide to vote.

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