Perot Backers: the Swing Voters of the '90s

January 31, 1993|By PAUL WEST

American politics has a new hot property: the Perot voter.

Reagan Democrats had their decade as the most important group in the land. Now it's the Perotians' turn.

They were on the minds of Republicans as the party leadership gathered to pick a new national chairperson Friday. And over the next four years, they will be fussed over by Democrats as well as Republicans, courted by the Clinton White House and studied to death by the news media.

For good reason: Perot backers hold the balance of power in national politics, now and for the foreseeable future.

"There's presently a two-and-a-half party system in America, and the half is in many ways the most interesting part," says political analyst Kevin Phillips, author of the recently published "Boiling Point: Republicans, Democrats and the Decline of Middle-Class Prosperity."

The 1992 election scrambled the political picture, leaving no party with a clear majority. Bill Clinton's victory was broad but shallow, his coattails all but non-existent. Though George Bush fared worse than any incumbent president in 80 years, Republicans held their own in Congress and in state and local contests. Meantime, Ross Perot got a bigger share of the vote than any independent candidate in more than a half-century.

An "incomplete realignment" is how Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, describes the political landscape today. Over the past 25 years, she notes, the Republican Party had managed to reach parity with the Democrats by absorbing the Wallace voters (the hot political property of the '70s) and the Reagan Democrats. Last fall, Mr. Clinton fractured that coalition -- with considerable help from Mr. Perot. Currently, more Americans regard themselves as Democrats than Republicans, but only by a margin of about 45 to 35 percent, still short of a majority.

dTC Enter the Perot supporters. As the new swing vote in national politics, they have the numbers to make Democrats the majority party or put a Republican back in the White House in 1996. Or they could conceivably elect Mr. Perot in another three-way race and deal a shattering blow to the present two-party system.

More than many Americans, the Perot backers care deeply about politics -- and they vote. As a group, exit polls found, they're whiter (only 6 percent of the Perot vote came from minorities) and more male than the electorate as a whole. They're located, disproportionately, in western states. And their views are well-known: They're worried about the budget deficit, sick of politics as usual, ready for someone to end the gridlock in Washington and get the U.S. economy growing.

Last November, almost one in five American voters (19 percent) was in the Perot camp. But that figure may well understate the potential Perot vote. In a recent national poll, 35 percent of those questioned said they would consider voting for Mr. Perot if the election were held today.

Paul Maslin, a California pollster who worked for the Perot campaign, believes the Perot vote can best be understood by dividing it into three categories, each representing about 10 percent of the total vote.

The first group -- hard-core Perot supporters -- tend to be older, more Republican in outlook and upscale economically. They are deficit hawkswho fear that their country's future is sinking into a sea of government red ink. If Mr. Perot does not run again -- a big if -- many are likely to drift back to the Republican Party.

The second group -- less strongly committed but still Perot voters -- are younger and more likely to be true political independents or Democratic leaners. While the deficit matters to them, that concept is less fundamental than their own job prospects and such issues as trade and international competitiveness (remember that "giant sucking sound going south" as American jobs headed for the border?). They care deeply about reforming the political process, curbing the power of special interest groups and giving ordinary citizens a sense of control over their government again.

"This is a constituency Clinton needs desperately," Mr. Maslin, a Democratic consultant, points out. "This is the group that will make a majority for him if he gets them in '96."

The final group in this framework did not actually vote for Mr. Perot, despite some attraction for him and his stands, but instead went primarily for Mr. Clinton. Most were unwilling to "waste" their vote on an independent candidate or were put off by Mr. Perot's quirky personality.

But, adds Mr. Maslin, "they're still listening to him. They're up for grabs." While they want Mr. Clinton to succeed as president and aren't eager to defect, they have reservations about him and are watching closely to see how he performs.

Perhaps the most unpredictable variable in this political equation is Mr. Perot himself. He has re-emerged as a public figure, appearing on numerous TV and radio shows and spearheading a grass-roots campaign to keep his organization alive.

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