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.
"When we went in, my hypothesis was that there would be two groups of Jackson voters," Gallup Vice President Larry Hugick said. "We didn't see it."
No Queries About Income
If anything, there was a depression at the low end of the scale. Although the Gallup survey asked no specific questions about income, it found an unusually high level of education among white Jackson supporters. One-third were college graduates, contrasted with one-fourth of all Democratic voters in the state. Not quite 11% of Jackson's white supporters reported less than a high-school education, contrasted with 20% of all white Texas Democrats.
More than half identified themselves as liberals who strongly dislike Reagan. The issue of greatest concern to them was unemployment, but their profile was more suggestive of people who are sympathetic with the unemployed than of those likely to be out of work themselves.
"One suspects that much of his white support is from the '60s liberals," Hugick said--the mostly middle-aged professionals whose formative political experiences were Vietnam War protests and the civil rights movement. Half were aged 30 to 49.
A Similar Skewing
Surveys conducted by ABC and NBC News and the Los Angeles Times of Democratic voters exiting the polls in Illinois last week showed a similar skewing among white Jackson supporters toward affluent, well-educated liberals.
ABC's exit poll found that one-fourth of Jackson's white voters described themselves as self-employed and "young professionals," contrasted with less than one-fifth of all white Democrats. Like the '60s liberals found by Gallup, half of Jackson's supporters interviewed by ABC in Illinois were 30 to 50 years old.
About 70% of Illinois whites voting for Jackson had some college education, and a striking 30% reported having done post-graduate study, contrasted with 19% of all white Democratic voters polled.
Ideologically, Jackson's white supporters in Illinois also tended to match the profile of upscale, anti-Reagan liberals. The three polls found that between 53% and 63% considered themselves as "liberal," contrasted with about 40% of all white Democrats. According to ABC, white Jackson voters were twice as likely to describe themselves as strong feminists or environmentalists.
Moreover, The Times and ABC polls found Jackson's white supporters more concerned than average Democrats with candidates' "moral beliefs," the Reagan Administration's Iran-Contra affair and the federal deficit than with bread-and-butter economic issues. The Times poll, for example, found that only 10% ranked taxes as the most important issue, contrasted with 18% of all white Democrats.
The level of education, the prevalence of self-employed workers and the level of income--about 60% told ABC pollsters that they earned more than $30,000 a year--point to a disproportionate number of doctors and lawyers among Jackson voters, according to the network's polling director, Jeff Alderman.
By contrast, Jackson's share of salaried workers and union members, whose support he has sought by emphasizing a higher minimum wage and expanded social programs such as child care, was no greater than the average among all white Democratic voters.
'The Gritty Urban Left'
"What most clearly identifies his white support is ideology," Schneider said. "They're the most anti-Reagan, very liberal--the gritty urban left."
As the primary season began in February and early March, Jackson advisers held out hopes that his 20% to 28% share of votes in Maine, Minnesota and Vermont--states in which blacks make up only about 1% of the population--would set a trend. Those states now appear to have been anomalies better explained by local politics than broad white support for Jackson.
Maine and Minnesota chose their Democratic National Convention delegates through party caucuses, in which relatively small numbers of activists can sway the outcome. In Maine, Jackson successfully played on a labor dispute at a paper mill. In Minnesota, a state with a long liberal tradition, Jackson strategists credit the local gay and lesbian community for helping to pack the caucuses. Organized gays also appear to have been a factor in getting out the Jackson vote in the Vermont primary.
Jackson is the only candidate who has explicitly campaigned for the support of gays and lesbians, who he says make up nearly 10% of the population. He has visited AIDS patients, called for redoubled efforts to combat the disease and to "confront homophobia."
In a sign that Jackson has struck a responsive chord, ABC's exit poll in Illinois found that 21% of his white voters considered a candidate's position on the AIDS epidemic important to them. Among all white Democratic voters, only 8% thought it important.
Staff writer Douglas Jehl, traveling with the Jackson campaign, contributed to this story.
Jackson addresses 1,000 California Democrats. Page 3.