Jackson Seeks to Broaden Traditional Constituent Core : Even ‘Rainbow Coalition’ Loyalists May Tire of Backing a Perennial ‘Fringe’ Candidate
It is “Captain” Jesse Jackson, clad in a bright yellow slicker and piloting a 75-foot sports fishing boat seaward to dramatize the plight of North Carolina fishermen thrown out of work by “red tide"--a toxic algae that has closed 230 miles of coastal shellfish beds in this state.
“I want to pull together fishermen on this coast,” the Democratic presidential candidate says in his familiar rolling cadence, “and pull together abandoned tobacco farmers and family farmers and textile workers and urban people in a common economic agenda to reinvest in America.”
That, of course, is his dream. Jackson, a South Carolinian by birth and upbringing, has worked long and hard in his native Dixie to build an interracial, multi-ethnic populist-style coalition of disaffected blue-collar and rural workers and disadvantaged urban dwellers. The “Rainbow Coalition,” as he terms it.
The potential political payoff is high. Nearly one-third of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta in July will be selected when voters in 14 Southern and border states declare their choice for President in primaries and caucuses on March 8, the so-called Super Tuesday.
But for all his effort, Jackson’s campaign is running up against the same basic stumbling block that his trailblazing candidacy four years ago encountered: Jackson’s seeming inability to expand his base of political support much beyond his core constituency of blacks and a relative handful of liberal whites.
His biggest handicap among white Southern voters is no doubt his race--especially when coupled, as it usually is, with his image as an ultra-liberal and civil rights reformer. Moreover, Jackson’s populist campaign, with its stress on the “have-littles and have-nots,” may have limited appeal among whites.
Although Jackson tallied a better-than-expected 11% in the Iowa Democratic caucuses last week, he faces a different situation in the South. Unlike Iowa, this area is not as dominated by a hard-pressed agricultural economy nor afflicted with a huge reservoir of voter discontent with President Reagan’s policies. Iowa Democrats are also more liberal than their Southern white counterparts.
“In 1984, Jesse got about 5% of the white vote in the South,” said Claibourne Darden Jr., an Atlanta-based pollster and political analyst. “This year, I’ve seen few legitimate polls in the South that show he has any more than 10% of the white vote. This populist political philosophy is not going to do the trick for him--or for any other candidate.”
Solid, Loyal Bloc
No matter how the white vote in Dixie eventually shakes out for Jackson, there is little doubt that he will come out of Super Tuesday as a power to be reckoned with. His core constituency alone, the most solid and loyal bloc of any among the Democratic presidential contenders, all but guarantees him enough votes for a hefty share of the 1,173 delegates to be selected on Super Tuesday.
With 90% of the black vote and 10% of the white vote, it has been estimated that he could win at least 25% to 30% of the Democratic vote in many Super Tuesday states and higher percentages in others.
Nevertheless, for however much he is able to capitalize on that at convention time, his lack of any substantial success in broadening his base of political support calls into question his credibility as anything more than a “fringe” candidate in presidential politics.
“Eventually, this sort of quixotic campaign is going to wear thin and the black Establishment will try to consolidate support for a black politician who is electable,” said William Schneider, a resident fellow at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute and political consultant to The Times.
In fact, some black political leaders in the South attempted to discourage Jackson from running this year, arguing that his candidacy would carry too many risks for blacks and for the Democratic Party in general.
“Jesse was the right person to run in 1984,” said Georgia state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, head of Jackson’s Georgia campaign in that year. “But 1988 is a different ballgame--Reagan’s not on the ballot.
“I told Jesse that we should sit this one out and allow the Democratic Party to consolidate its forces and develop a national strategy to retake the White House,” Brooks added. “I felt Jesse’s candidacy might hurt those efforts. He would pull his strong black vote, but he would not be on the ticket, and blacks don’t need symbolism this year, we need a winner.”
In another sign of Jackson’s ambivalent status among some black political leaders, the Alabama Democratic Conference, one of the nation’s oldest black political organizations, unanimously endorsed Jackson in December but also picked Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. as a backup candidate.
Joe Reed, the conference’s chairman, maintained that the vote was “no dual endorsement, it’s no co-endorsement, it’s an endorsement of Jesse Jackson.”
“We are going to support him and we are going to work for him,” Reed said.
But Loch Johnson, a University of Georgia political scientist, contends that the conference’s selection of Gore as a backup is a sign that “they know Jesse’s not going to go the full (distance) and so they’ve offered voters a second choice who has a good chance of winning and is going to support their needs.”
Jackson has spared no effort to prove the doubters wrong. In the most immediately notable difference between his 1984 campaign and this one, he has moderated his image as a fire-breathing radical and toned down his rhetoric.
“He was running as an outsider in 1984,” said James van Heck, chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party. “As an outsider, his basic message then was twofold--one was talking about issues and the other was talking about the party shutting him out. You don’t hear a lot of that anymore.”
His basic message now sounds the theme of economic justice. “The New South must shift from the historical battles of racial battleground to economic common ground and then move on to moral higher ground,” he says. “Common ground means making common sense. We should not be closing farms in America while importing food from foreign countries subsidized by the U.S. government.”
Another distinctive feature of his current campaign is the unusual number of whites among his top campaign aides. They include his national campaign manager, national campaign treasurer, press secretary and issues coordinator--posts all held by blacks in Jackson’s first presidential run.
Moreover, Jackson remains a charismatic and energetic campaigner. Long before the 1988 presidential campaign began to heat up, Jackson had been out on the hustings.
In one of his earliest forays, he traveled to rural southeast Georgia to stand by the side of a 66-year-old white Laurens County widow while her farm, which had been in her family for 150 years, was auctioned off at a foreclosure sale.
“It is utterly merciless to take a 66-year-old woman and drive her from her land without training, without a future,” Jackson said. “When Chrysler was in trouble in the world automobile market, we restructured the debt of Chrysler.” Similarly, he argued, a national policy should be formulated to restructure the debt of financially beleaguered farmers.
Since then, he has become a ubiquitous figure in the South, crisscrossing the region from rural hamlet to big city as he champions the cause of blue-collar workers threatened by overseas competition and union members menaced by right-to-work attitudes.
In all, he has spent more time campaigning in the South than any Democratic candidate with the possible exception of Gore, whose strategy is based on striking political pay dirt as a regional favorite son on Super Tuesday.
Jackson has “made a real effort in Louisiana not to hit just the big cities but the rural areas and the smaller places as well,” said Carolyn Mikell, public relations director of the Louisiana Democratic Party. “A lot of other candidates come in and just hit the major cities.”
Jackson won the Democratic presidential primary in Louisiana in 1984 with 43% of the primary vote--his only primary victory in the South that year.
In many respects, his campaigning this time has been encouraging. Whites have turned out to hear him in numbers unimaginable four years ago. For example, nearly one-third of the 150 people joining Jackson for a campaign breakfast in mid-December at a black Atlanta restaurant were white.
“It was one of the broadest mixes and ranges of interests we’ve ever had at a gathering,” said Georgia state Sen. Eugene Walker, a black and co-chairman of Jackson’s Georgia campaign.
His call for economic justice strikes a responsive chord with many white audiences too. “He’s really the black George Wallace of the South,” a white pipe manufacturer in Corinth, Miss., told an Atlanta reporter during a Jackson campaign stop there.
“Whites are taking him more seriously than four years ago,” said William Barnard, a University of Alabama political historian. “And they’re proud to listen to him; it proves they’re not bigots. They walk away and say, ‘Boy, can that man talk!’ But when it comes to the lick-log, as they say in the Alabama Legislature, they’ll walk into that voting booth and, generally, vote for somebody else.”
Jackson’s biggest obstacles to wider acceptance among white Southern voters--especially the working-class whites upon whom he has focused much of his attention--are unquestionably his race, his left-wing politics and his civil rights background.
“A high proportion of working-class Southern whites feel cold toward the symbols of civil rights leaders and black militants,” said Earl Black, a University of South Carolina political scientist and co-author of “Politics and Society in the South.”
“When that’s the perception, it’s very hard to win very much white support. Jackson’s background places him somewhere between civil rights leader and black militant. He has attempted to soften that image and moderate his rhetoric this year, but it’ll still be hard for him to wind up with much beyond 10% of the white vote.”
Jackson’s appearance in late January in Carolina Beach, a predominantly white fishing and resort community of 31,000, illustrates his strengths and weaknesses among white Southern voters.
More than 100 people, mostly white, turned out for the event, braving chilly winds and the candidate’s late arrival. But a sampling of the spectators showed that many were drawn simply out of curiosity.
“I came to get a picture of him for the children,” said a tourist from Cleveland. “He’s a celebrity, but I’m not going to vote for him.”
The fishermen in the crowd respected Jackson’s concern for their plight--the “red tide” pollution has idled 10,000 fisherman and caused losses estimated at more than $16 million--but they were not converted to his candidacy.
“I don’t see that there’s much he could do about the red tide anyway,” said Ray Shropshire, 61, of nearby Wilmington. “If he wants to do anything, he’d have to be in office now to do it.”
The only unqualified Jackson supporters in the crowd were the smattering of blacks and white liberals--most of whom had voted for him in 1984.
“I just like the man. He has honest eyes,” said Sherrie van Essendelft, 42, a white who moved here from Chicago, Jackson’s home base. She carried the only placard in the crowd. It said: “Go Jessie (sic), Transplanted Southsiders Want You in 1988.”