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THE NATION

Dean's Success May Hinge on Luring Blue-Collar Votes

Popularity with college graduates might not be enough to capture the nomination, experts say.

October 21, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Can Howard Dean escape the Starbucks ghetto?

New polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, the critical first two states in the Democratic presidential race, show the former Vermont governor dominating among voters with a college degree -- the sort of people more likely to stop at Starbucks than a doughnut shop in the morning. But in both states he is showing much less strength among voters who did not graduate from college.

That sharp educational divide has been a driving force in every recent Democratic race involving candidates, like Dean, who positioned themselves as Washington outsiders and reformers. In those contests, the inability to sufficiently connect with blue-collar and less-educated voters ultimately helped doom contenders like Gary Hart in 1984, Paul Tsongas in 1992 and Bill Bradley in 2000, all of whom generated enthusiasm among better-educated voters.

Many of Dean's rivals believe that he faces the same risk if he cannot build more support among blue-collar voters, especially after the race contracts to a two- or three-person contest after the initial primaries.

"At the end of the day, you've got to be able to span the party to win," said David Axelrod, a top advisor to Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. "Certainly there is a working-class base to our party, and the ability to relate to those voters is very, very important."

Other analysts, however, believe that because the Democrats over the last decade have grown increasingly dependent on support from more-affluent and better-educated voters, Dean may be able to win the nomination primarily with their backing -- especially if voters without college degrees don't unify around one of his rivals.

But almost all Democrats, including senior advisors in Dean's camp, agree that he will face long odds as a nominee against President Bush if he cannot make greater inroads among blue-collar and noncollege voters, especially men.

"Does this mean he can't win the nomination? The answer is: He can win the nomination," said Tony Coelho, a campaign chairman for Al Gore in 2000. "Does this mean real problems for the general election? The answer is also yes."

Added a top Dean aide: "We are going to have to develop and broaden the message. I don't doubt that for a second."

The educational divide in Democratic presidential primaries -- what Axelrod calls "the wine track" and "the beer track" -- reflects the divided nature of the modern Democratic Party.

From Franklin D. Roosevelt's election in 1932 through the 1960s, the heart of the Democratic coalition was blue-collar and minority voters. Blue-collar whites often were conservative on social issues but were mainly drawn to the party to represent their economic interests.

But since the days of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, many of these lunch-bucket Democrats have migrated toward the Republicans around such issues as taxes, crime and national security. That has reduced their overall influence in the Democratic Party.

In their place, Democrats have gained support since the 1970s from college-educated professionals -- "lifestyle liberals" who back the party's positions on social concerns, such as abortion, gun control, the environment and foreign policy.

Over the last 20 years, the tension between the lunch-bucket and the lifestyle Democrats often has shaped the race for the party's presidential nomination. That contrast is emerging this year too.

In polls released last week by the Democracy Corps, a party advocacy group, Dean held a commanding lead among college-educated Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to vote in January.

In Iowa, Dean led Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri among college-educated voters 36% to 15%, according to the survey, conducted by veteran Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg. Among college-educated voters in New Hampshire, Dean crushed Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts 45% to 19%, the survey found.

Among voters without a college degree, the story was very different. In Iowa, among voters with a high school degree or less, Gephardt led Dean by 42% to 16%; in New Hampshire, those voters preferred Kerry over Dean 29% to 23%. Voters with some college, but not a degree, narrowly preferred Gephardt in Iowa and Dean in New Hampshire.

Together, those results produced a virtual dead heat in Iowa -- with Gephardt at 27% and Dean at 26% -- and a comfortable 38% to 21% Dean lead over Kerry in New Hampshire.

Dean's strength among better-educated voters fits a long-standing tradition. Since the 1960s, these Democrats have favored candidates who position themselves as reform-minded outsiders, scorn politics as usual and embrace liberal positions on social issues and foreign policy. That lineage runs from Eugene McCarthy's anti-Vietnam War crusade against Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 to George S. McGovern in 1972, and to Hart, Tsongas and Bradley.

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