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Jackson Finding Little Support in Blue-Collar Vote

March 21, 1988|ROBERT GILLETTE | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — With 32 of the Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses over, there are gathering signs that the Rev. Jesse Jackson is failing to win broad support from blue-collar, lower-income white voters--a major segment of the working poor whose cause is the heart and soul of his populist campaign.

A variety of independent polls taken among Democratic voters after the Illinois primary last week and earlier in Texas indicate that affluent, well-educated liberals continue to predominate among Jackson's white supporters.

The polls suggest that Jackson has failed so far to make significant inroads among the much more numerous white Americans at the other end of the social and economic spectrum who are a main target of his impassioned calls for "economic justice."

In the absence of a breakout from a narrow circle of ideologically committed white liberals to supplement his solid support among blacks, some analysts have begun to speculate that Jackson's campaign may already have peaked, and that talk of his gathering 1,000 delegates or more by the July convention in Atlanta greatly overstates his potential.

By this view, Jackson will continue to accumulate delegates in the big industrial states of the North and West between now and the last primaries in June, but at a much slower pace than in recent weeks.

The result is likely to be a widening gap between Jackson's delegate count and that of Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis. According to the Associated Press' tally, Dukakis now stands at 526.50 delegates to Jackson's 508.55.

Among those noting evidence of Jackson's appeal to a persistently narrow range of white voters, Times political analyst William Schneider maintains that "he may have hit his high-water mark."

"His white vote is up slightly from 1984," said Schneider, "but it is not the downtrodden and the poor. He's getting the radical chic vote, the trendy liberals" who appear to be animated as much as anything by an intense dislike of President Reagan.

Can't Afford Polls

The Jackson campaign, which is unable to afford voter polls of its own, responds by declaring no confidence in any such surveys and offering anecdotal evidence of what his advisers insist is wide backing among blue-collar whites.

"I have absolutely zero faith in any polling," said Frank Watkins, Jackson's political director. While Jackson has support among more affluent, educated white liberals, Watkins said, "there are plenty of others" who are less well off and also support him.

Watkins recalled, as an example, a poor, middle-aged white couple, shabbily dressed and nearly toothless, who came into the South Carolina campaign headquarters before the March 12 Democratic caucuses.

"The man leaned over to me and whispered, 'I don't care if he is a nigger. I'm going to vote for him,' " Watkins said. "I seriously doubt that Gallup or anyone else is polling people like that."

"Not a Peugeot Proletarian'

Jackson himself dismisses suggestions that a narrow base of white support is an obstacle to his prospects.

"Our vote was not a Peugeot proletariat," he said of his 8% share of the white vote in Illinois last week. "My focus is not so much on the color of votes but the number of voters."

Jackson has consistently commanded about 90% of the black vote this year, both in Northern urban areas and the South, a substantial increase over his performance in 1984, when Walter F. Mondale used a strong civil rights record to capture one-third of the black vote. In addition, the overall turnout of black voters has been higher this year.

Because blacks made up 25% to 30% of the voting population in Southern states, most of which held their primaries on March 8, additional support from 8% to 12% of white voters has been enough to propel Jackson into the lead in popular vote in the primaries so far, with an overall 26.5% to Dukakis' 25.7%.

'Reverse Robin Hood'

In the six large industrial states that are still to hold primaries, however, demography shifts against Jackson. According to the Census Bureau, the black voting age population of California, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania--whose 1,153 delegates make up more than one-fourth of the convention total--averages only 10.9%.

Unless Jackson can compensate by attracting significantly more than the 8% of white Democrats who voted for him in his home state of Illinois last week, his performance is unlikely to approach the victories he won in the South.

In search of white supporters at the low end of the economic spectrum, Jackson has appeared scores of times at factory gates and union halls to appeal for the votes of those he calls the victims of corporate "economic violence" and the Reagan Administration's role as "reverse Robin Hood, taking from the poor and giving to the rich."

An early indication of his failure came from a survey the Gallup Organization conducted among 3,000 Democratic voters the weekend before the Texas primary on March 8.

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