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CAMPAIGN 2000 | NEWS ANALYSIS

White Working Class Seen as Critical Bloc of Voters

Election: Bush and Gore campaigns each target the same swing group but with markedly different appeals.

August 20, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

George W. Bush and Al Gore head toward the fall presidential campaign squarely targeted on the same group of swing voters they believe could decide the election--but with starkly contrasting strategies of how to reach them.

In both camps, strategists are focusing largely on white working-class voters without a college education--middle-income families who take generally conservative views on social issues but feel more economically squeezed than those "wired workers" on the crest of the new economy. Forget the upscale SUV-driving "soccer moms" that represented the Holy Grail for Bill Clinton's 1996 campaign: Both candidates this year, but especially Gore, are looking more toward minivan families living paycheck to paycheck.

Secure in his advantage among more affluent voters, Bush thinks he can reach working-class families with a socially conservative message that preaches "personal responsibility" and promises to restore "honor" in the White House. Gore is betting they'll respond to a traditional economic populism that invites voters into a crusade of "the people" against "the powerful."

Indeed, Gore seemed to pitch his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention last week much more toward voters who feel left behind economically than those who are prospering--a striking strategic bet for a candidate running as the representative of an administration that has presided over eight years of uninterrupted economic growth.

Some key architects of President Clinton's two victories worry that Gore may be squandering one of Clinton's most important political achievements--broadening the Democrats' appeal to families who are gaining ground economically. But Gore, siding with liberal critics of Clinton's strategy, has apparently decided that the decisive vote in November will be less-affluent white voters, especially women.

"Non-college women were very much in his mind when he was speaking at the convention," said one senior advisor in the Gore campaign, who asked not be named when discussing campaign strategy.

And, for now at least, Gore has decided to pursue those voters with pointed populist language that risks alienating more-upscale families already moving back toward the GOP after Clinton's breakthroughs. "Can populism win them swing voters in Silicon Valley? I doubt it," says Karl Rove, Bush's chief strategist.

The first voter reviews on the Democratic convention appear positive: A Newsweek poll released Saturday gave Gore a 48%-to-42% lead over Bush. Other surveys released Friday showed Gore with either a smaller lead or Bush with a slight advantage.

Bush believes after the tumultuous partisan conflicts of the Clinton era, voters across the income scale will recoil over time from Gore's pledge to be a "fighter" in Washington. Immediately after the Democratic convention, Bush denounced Gore for trying to "pit one group of people against another."

"Voters don't want someone who is going to fight, fight and fight," insists Rove. "They want a uniter, not a divider."

The competition between Bush and Gore for white working-class voters has a Mars vs. Venus quality: while Gore is primarily targeting women, Bush's strategists are focused most on men. Both Rove and Matthew Dowd, Bush's polling director, argue that younger blue-collar men--who tend to be skeptical of government spending and resistant to Gore's views on social issues like gun control--could be the swing group that decides the election.

Through the Democratic convention, Bush was trouncing Gore on both sides of the bed in these blue-collar households.

In a Times Poll conducted just before the convention opened, Bush led Gore by more than 2 to 1 among white men with a high school degree or only some college education. Bush led Gore by 12 percentage points among white women with only a high school education and by 21 points among white women with some college.

In his acceptance speech, Gore's focus on more downscale voters was unmistakable. Gore never mentioned the words "new economy"--a deafening omission from a candidate who has relentlessly courted Silicon Valley and has championed the Internet and the computer revolution. He brushed over the economic progress of the last eight years in a single paragraph, and he seemed to second the view of liberals who maintain that the gains have been tilted too much toward the top when he declared, "Let's make sure our prosperity enriches not just the few but all working families."

Above all, Gore infused his speech with a class-conscious rhetoric that portrayed him as the defender of "working families" against "powerful interests" such as "the big polluters," "the big drug companies" and "bean-counters at HMOs."

Gore's turn toward this populist appeal marks a striking reversal in a decade-long argument among Democratic strategists over how to build a winning presidential coalition.

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