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Results Show Voters Swayed by Personality, Not Party Loyalty

November 06, 1986|MICHAEL WINES and JOHN J. GOLDMAN | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The voters who trooped under leaden skies to New York polls Tuesday cast a huge majority for an archetypal liberal Democratic governor, Mario M. Cuomo. But in nearly equal numbers, they rejected a liberal Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in favor of an incumbent--Republican Alfonse M. D'Amato--who embodies Reagan conservatism.

In Florida, more than half the voters surveyed in a network exit poll said they felt it was important to elect candidates who backed Ronald Reagan. Yet the same voters threw out one of the President's strongest supporters, Sen. Paula Hawkins, for homespun Democrat Bob Graham, a moderate who was a popular governor.

Such electoral schizophrenia goes far toward explaining why the President's cross-country blitz on behalf of GOP candidates failed utterly--and spectacularly--to stop Democrats from retaking control of the Senate, post-election analysts said Wednesday. Democrats swept seven freshman Republican senators from office in amassing a 55-45 majority in the chamber, their first since Reagan became President.

No Lasting Reversal Seen

But the same voting patterns offer Democrats little hope that the Senate victories mark any real reversal of voting trends that Republicans have often exploited during the last two decades, analysts said. If anything, the results suggest that the 1986 midterm elections were decided on personalities and television images and not on party loyalties, Republican or Democratic.

"This election shows that when you cast a ballot . . . party labels help but don't guarantee you will pull the lever" for one party's slate of candidates, said Laurily Epstein, pollster for NBC News.

"I think there was some return to the fold of Democrats" by those who voted Republican earlier in the decade, said William I. Greener III, political director for the Republican National Committee. "You can't get to the outcome without it.

"But this was not an environment where people were being drawn to cast a ballot on an issue of national scope. It wasn't there."

Tuesday's NBC-Wall Street Journal exit polling in Florida, New York and elsewhere seems to underline that point, as does a similar national exit poll by ABC News and the Washington Post.

GOP Backing Unchanged

GOP support, for example, did not erode much in this election. About 31% of persons surveyed as they left voting booths nationwide called themselves Republicans and 36% said they were Democrats, levels little changed from the 1984 election, when candidate Reagan carried 49 states over Democrat Walter F. Mondale.

Moreover, some 42% of voters judged the Republicans better able to handle the country's economic problems, versus 37% for the Democrats. That's far better for the GOP than the last midterm congressional elections in recession-plagued 1982, when the two parties tied on the same question.

And when asked to rate the President's personal performance, a whopping 59% of voters in the NBC poll gave Reagan a good or better rating.

Yet no amount of White House plugging for GOP candidates could extend that party and personal popularity to the level of the Senate races. Consider:

--According to ABC's exit poll, nearly one-third of those who voted for Reagan in 1984 voted on Tuesday for Democratic Senate candidates. In California, Democrat Alan Cranston drew the backing of 27% of 1984 Reagan voters, ABC said. The Democrats racked up the biggest gains, as expected, in "bust" states where the economy is poor, but they also eked out a slight edge even in boom states where Republican prosperity and incumbency would have been expected to be telling.

Lost Grip on Some Blocs

--The GOP lost its grip, at least temporarily, on some blocs of voters it has courted assiduously during the Reagan years. Young, first-time voters split almost evenly between the two parties in Senate races, the ABC poll reported. More than a quarter of those who call themselves conservative also voted Democratic.

--The White House's dogged effort to create a national, pro-Republican theme for the Senate and House races seems to have fallen flat. In the ABC polling of voters in Senate races, only two issues trumpeted by the White House--illegal drug trafficking and the "Star Wars" missile defense program--appeared to have generated any Republican support at all.

And the number of GOP voters who said those issues were "very important" to their Senate voting decision was only fractionally greater than the number of Democratic voters energized by the same themes.

Such voting splits are even starker in some individual states. According to NBC, for example, 68% of Florida voters judged Reagan's job performance as good or excellent, far better than the President's nationwide approval rating. But 40% of those Reagan backers ignored his campaign trips to Florida on Hawkins' behalf and voted for Democrat Graham.

But Democrats who see evidence of a party resurgence in those numbers are deceiving themselves, analysts say.

Immense Popularity

In Florida, NBC data showed, Graham's victory appeared due largely to his immense personal popularity--more than three-quarters of voters approved of his performance as governor, while about half approved of Hawkins' Senate work.

Meanwhile, Graham's gubernatorial seat was being taken easily by a Democrat-turned-Republican, Tampa Mayor Bob Martinez. Martinez persuaded 28% of Graham's supporters to back him in the governor's race, ABC polls showed, nearly twice the "crossover" vote that his Democratic opponent was able to lure from the Hawkins camp.

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