Perot voters proving hard to define and a dubious asset to Democrats

November 03, 1994|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Sun Staff Correspondent

AUGUSTA, Maine -- The Pollards say they are not unusual as Maine voters go.

Sam, an entrepreneur, voted for Ross Perot in 1992 and now intends to vote for Republican Olympia J. Snowe for the Senate and independent Angus King for governor.

Helen Pollard, a teacher, also voted for Mr. Perot two years ago but now supports Democrats Joe Brennan for governor and Tom Andrews for the Senate. "We're back to canceling each other out," she said. "Sam has always had a blind spot about Democrats."

If there is a lesson to be drawn from the Pollards, it is this: Perot voters are easy to find in Maine, but defining the Perot Vote in 1994 is an entirely different matter.

What this suggests, in turn, is that President Clinton and his political advisers have been deluding themselves to the extent that they have focused on Perot supporters in trying to build a larger base for 1996.

It also suggests there may be limits to the value of the endorsements Mr. Perot has been offering lately, most notably to Gov. Ann W. Richards of Texas, a Democrat, and limits to the idea of giving the Republicans control of Congress to see if they can do better than the Democrats ruling there now. If the Republicans don't succeed, Mr. Perot promised -- or threatened -- recently to build a third party for the next presidential campaign.

Fertile ground for Perot

If there is a state where a Perot bloc vote should be identifiable, it is Maine. The independent from Texas finished second here, with 30 percent of the vote, his best in any state and enough to consign George Bush, of the Kennebunkport Bushes, to third place. In the 2nd Congressional District, Mr. Perot hit another national high-water mark, 33 percent.

Maine has a reputation for independence and quirkiness in its voting patterns. It elected an independent governor 20 years ago and might do so again Tuesday. Democrats here have given a lift to such odd-fit presidential candidates as Jesse L. Jackson and Jerry Brown.

This year, their independence is reflected in the fact that Mr. King is only a tick behind former Governor Brennan in the contest to succeed Gov. John R. McKernan Jr., who is ineligible for a third term. The Republican, Susan Collins, is a distant third.

But how much this has to do with Perot supporters is in jTC question. Mr. King said he believes he is getting the largest segment of self-described independents, which is unsurprising, although some are also backing Jonathan Carter, the gubernatorial candidate of the Maine Green Party. But there are no data to suggest that the Perot Vote is moving en masse.

"There's doesn't seem to be as much of an overlap as you might think," said Stephen Bost, the Maine and New England regional director of United We Stand America, the organization formed out of the Perot campaign.

Mr. King should have "a leg up" with United We Stand members, Mr. Bost said, "but we're not sensing that here." The independent Mr. King of 1994, Mr. Bost said, was "affiliated with liberal causes" when he was a Democrat, "so he's not necessarily seen as the genuine article. I'm not sure he has connected."

In fact, the leanings of United We Stand members do not necessarily reflect the Perot Vote anyway. Although the organization will not disclose its membership numbers, no one disputes that it reaches most of those who voted for Mr. Perot when he polled 19 percent of the vote nationally two years ago.

Indeed, by definition, independent voters probably cannot be considered a bloc. They have characteristics in common but many variations in their predilections. Mr. Bost, himself a former Democratic state legislator, sees their interest in government-reform issues and fiscal conservatism as the most obvious hallmarks, in addition to a strong interest in public policy.

"As a voting bloc," he said, "they are very educated on the issues."

Polling data and analyses of the 1992 returns have made clear that Perot voters tended to be white, middle-class, suburban and well-educated. Two years ago, they were moved by Mr. Perot as a vehicle of protest. "A lot of voters who had never voted before or not for a long time were energized by his candidacy," Mr. Bost said. "He's definitely the glue that keeps the organization together."

United We Stand doesn't endorse candidates, although it does poll its members and report their preferences and grades incumbents. In the Senate campaign here, for example, Ms. Snowe, the Republican, was given a "B," and Mr. Andrews, the Democrat, an "F" on issues of importance to the group.

But Ms. Snowe has been running far ahead of Mr. Andrews from the outset, so few believe that United We Stand has influenced the process.

The Perot group has held candidate forums in 26 states this fall, but none here were considered pivotal in the campaign. The gubernatorial candidate forum attracted no more than 50 people on a Sunday, according to both Mr. King and Mr. Brennan, and perhaps half were members of the candidates' entourages.

Angry and turned off

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