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Why John Kerry Needs the Needy

April 25, 2004|David K. Shipler

John Kerry needs Caroline Payne and Tom King. Neither voted in the last presidential election, despite their special stake in the outcome. Both are single, working-poor parents and thus reflect an irony of electoral demographics: They are the Americans who most need government services and are most vulnerable to cutbacks -- and they are also the ones least likely to vote.

In 2000, Payne and King both lived in New Hampshire, a battleground state that Al Gore lost to George Bush by only 7,211 of the 569,081 ballots cast. If they and others like them had voted in their economic interests, chances are that Gore would have won the state's four electoral votes and Bush would not be in the White House today.

Historically, the lower a person's income is, the greater his support for the Democrats -- but the less likely he is to vote. This pattern presents Kerry with both a problem and an opportunity. If families who earn less than $25,000 a year had been persuaded to participate in the last presidential contest at the same rate as those earning more than $75,000, an additional 6.8 million people would have voted -- most of them probably for Gore.

Nationwide, the turnout of eligible voters in the last presidential election ranged from a high of 75% of those in households earning more than $75,000 a year to just 38% of those under $10,000. Support for Bush also declined with income, running from 54% of those earning over $100,000 down to 37% of those under $15,000, according to exit polls.

Payne says she was too overwhelmed that fall to think about politics. The factory where she worked, owned by Procter & Gamble, had refused to put her on a steady day shift, so she had to leave her mildly retarded teenage daughter alone in the evenings. It was a potentially dangerous situation, throwing Payne into a frantic scramble to reconcile job and family. She might have been wooed to the polls if she had been convinced that Gore would try to fund child care sufficiently, or broaden job training to upgrade her skills, or address the chronic deficiencies of health insurance for low-wage workers. But her personal crisis drowned out the candidates.

King, a widower with three children, always felt divorced from public issues. "I don't do politics well," he told me. He failed to vote in 2000, and he skipped last February's New Hampshire primary as well, he said, because he had just been laid off from a boot factory. On primary day, he noted, "I was out looking for a job."

Of course, King wasn't looking for a job during all the hours that the polls were open, and Payne probably could have found enough mental energy to cast a ballot. But they didn't feel engaged enough to bother. Government looked indifferent, and voting seemed irrelevant to their struggles. Nothing they heard from candidates suggested otherwise. This is the cycle that Democrats must break.

Because the poor don't vote in large numbers, candidates don't usually speak to their issues. And because their issues are not addressed, the poor don't see much point in voting.

This can change. "Economically pressured" people -- those who work but have trouble making ends meet -- list healthcare as their top issue, followed closely by worries about the economy and jobs, according to a poll done for Emily's List, a liberal women's organization. This is fertile ground for Democrats. Mobilizing low-income blacks is particularly promising because they are safely Democratic; they went for Gore by a 9-1 margin. Whites are more of a gamble because many agree with Republicans on wedge issues like affirmative action, gun control and gay marriage. Still, it's a risk worth taking because economic issues trump the wedge issues, according to Steve Rosenthal, chief executive of America Coming Together, a pro-Democratic advocacy group.

Kerry "needs to put forward an economic agenda that really connects with low-income voters," Rosenthal said.

If that happens, maybe Tom King and Caroline Payne will go to the polls.

David K. Shipler's most recent book, "The Working Poor: Invisible in America," was published in February by Alfred A. Knopf.

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