What happened in 'home of Reagan Democrats' ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

November 30, 1992|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- As silver linings in clouds go, this one isn' much, but if President Bush examines the election returns from Macomb County, Mich., the self-proclaimed "home of the Reagan Democrats," he can find a modest one.

It turns out that the county so labeled for the past 12 years -- an area of nearly lily-white, middle-income, blue-collar workers who prominently abandoned the Democratic Party for Ronald Reagan 1980 and 1984 and stuck with George Bush in 1988 -- did not, as feared by the Republican Party, "go home" to the Democrats on Nov. 3.

Rather, the industrial suburban area just north of heavily Democratic Detroit gave Bush 43 percent of its vote to only 37 percent for Bill Clinton and an impressive 20 percent for independent Ross Perot. At the same time, the Democrats lost a state representative, a county treasurer and a county commissioner's seat to the Republicans.

Bush's victory was a far cry from the 65 percent to 35 percent romp he scored over Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis in Macomb in 1988, but he still held on as Clinton lost much of the presumed anti-Bush vote to Perot. On Election Day the Reagan Democrats didn't go home to their old party after all; most of those who strayed from Bush wandered off to Perot.

"I was stunned," says Leo Lalonde, the Democratic county chairman. "I waited 12 years for presidential coattails and there weren't any."

All through 1992, Lalonde told reporters who flocked from out of state to "the home of the Reagan Democrats" that the phenomenon of longtime, blue-collar Democrats voting Republican was an aberration. It could be countered, he said, by the Democrats running an appealing middle-road candidate culturally in tune with the voters in Macomb who was willing to organize the county and campaign hard.

Clinton did just that, making two major campaign stops in the county that Lalonde says was the most Democratic in the country in 1960 and remains Democratic on the local level. Clinton's message, however, may not have been the right one politically.

He urged the predominantly white electorate to put aside past racial animosities and fears of competition for jobs from blacks -- animosities and fears going back to support of George Wallace in 1972 -- and join a new Democratic Party that would attend to the needs of middle-class voters, white and black. That message didn't appear to sell.

Ironically, it was in Macomb County that Bush made his late-campaign reference to Clinton and running mate Al Gore as "bozos" -- an unpresidential remark that many surmised later had cost him votes. It may have, but it didn't cost him a Macomb plurality.

Many Reagan Democrats did desert Bush, but the bulk of those who did went to Perot, whose candidacy increased turnout in the county by nearly 58,000 over 1988. Bush's vote dropped 28,000 below his 1988 total, but Clinton managed to exceed Dukakis' vote by only 18,000. At the same time, Perot won nearly 68,000 votes in Macomb.

Lalonde, in looking optimistically to Clinton before the election to provide the coattails that would put Macomb back in the Democratic column in presidential politics, did, however, express some reservations. "A lot of the undecideds don't know enough about Clinton," he said then. "People don't really change until they hit rock-bottom. In 1932, they did and they went for FDR. They may not be at rock-bottom yet."

The Macomb party chairman made this observation at a time when the county, as the rest of Michigan, was still hurting from the recession. And on Nov. 3 the state as a whole did reject Bush, going for a Democrat for the first time since 1968, by a 43 percent to 37 percent margin, with Perot also getting about 20 percent statewide. Hence the puzzlement about Macomb County remaining in the Republican column.

One view, held by Republican Gov. John Engler, who scored an upset victory in 1990 over Democratic Gov. James Blanchard, is that the so-called Reagan Democrats really aren't Democrats any longer, and haven't been for some time. If that is so, much of the attraction of Macomb County to political pulse-takers from around the country will be lost, and a new "bellwether county" will have to be found by 1996.

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