Fewer ‘Volvo Voters’ Offer Tsongas a Lift in the South


The Volvo candidate now faces the land of Chevy trucks.

Through the early rounds of the presidential primaries and caucuses, former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas has powered into contention for the Democratic presidential nomination mainly on the strength of votes from white, relatively affluent, well-educated suburban professionals--referred to as Volvo Democrats--in New Hampshire and Maryland.

But as the race turns South on Super Tuesday this week, Tsongas now faces a series of contests where these types of voters don’t speak with nearly as loud a voice.

One of his rivals, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, heads into Super Tuesday with a substantial advantage on demography alone--leaving aside his regional affinity, a Southern accent that blossoms below the Mason-Dixon line and an armload of endorsements from elected officials.


In the early contests, Clinton has consistently outpolled Tsongas among voters of moderate income and education, and these Democrats traditionally have outnumbered the more affluent professionals--often by substantial margins--in each of the seven Southern and border states that are part of Super Tuesday’s 11 primaries or caucuses.

“If you look at the Southern presidential primaries, it is clear the candidate who has the most appeal to people at the modest end of the income and educational ladder is going to do well,” says Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, a native of South Carolina. “Tsongas is pushing the rock uphill.”

Still, analysts agree, Tsongas will find pockets of opportunity to pick up delegates in areas of rapid suburban growth--just as his fellow Greek-American from Massachusetts, Michael S. Dukakis, did in 1988. Dukakis won the 1988 primaries in Florida and Texas, largely by targeting the burgeoning white-collar suburbs outside cities such as Dallas, Houston, Miami and Tampa.

Tsongas is staking his hopes for Southern comfort on the same strategy--particularly in Florida. And his showing in the counties that ring Atlanta in Tuesday’s Georgia primary--where he ran far ahead of the 24% of the vote he won statewide--suggests that Southern suburbanites may be nearly as open to his appeal as their Northern counterparts.

“There are more similarities between the suburbs in the South and suburbs on Long Island, than there are between the Southern suburbs and rural Georgia or Mississippi,” says John D. Kasarda, director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina Business School.

Analysts cite the difference in their messages as a principal reason for the sharp demographic break in support that has emerged between Clinton and Tsongas.

Tsongas is speaking the language of the suburbanite--blending social liberalism on issues like gay rights and abortion with pro-business economic policies symbolized by his support for a capital-gains tax cut and opposition to a middle-class tax cut.

By contrast, Clinton has targeted working-class voters with a blend of economic populism--centered on support for the middle-class tax cut--and a less liberal stance on many social issues. For instance, he backs the death penalty, which Tsongas opposes in most cases.

These differences could be telling this week. The Super Tuesday calendar sprawls across a huge swath of territory--from Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the North to Hawaii in the West. But the day’s spotlight will be on the primaries in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee, as well as a caucus in Missouri.

These states are extremely diverse, harboring populations ranging from the cosmopolitan transplants of southern Florida--an area so infused with Northerners that mayoral candidates in New York City have campaigned there--to the poor black farmers of the Mississippi Delta.

But the basic portrait of the Southern electorate stands in counterpoint to the Northern states that have voted so far: The South is less affluent, less well-educated, less white and less suburban.

With that profile, the South bends much more toward Clinton’s base than toward that of Tsongas, or for that matter, former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., whose bid for the Democratic nomination has demonstrated strength among college-educated environmentalists.

Consider income. Among the Democratic voters who cast ballots in this year’s New Hampshire primary, fully half earned $40,000 a year or more; just 17% earned less than $20,000, while 33% had incomes between those two figures, according to the Los Angeles Times exit poll.

The South is comparable to New Hampshire in its numbers of middle-income voters. ABC-TV exit polls found that in the 1988 Democratic presidential primaries, the Southern and border states voting Tuesday had only a slightly higher share of voters earning between $20,000 and $40,000 than New Hampshire did this year.

But none of those states had nearly as many voters earning $40,000 or more a year; only in Florida (31%), Missouri (30%) and Texas (27%) was the percentage of affluent voters even half what it was in New Hampshire.

Instead, all of this year’s Southern and border Super Tuesday states four years ago had a substantially greater number of low income voters: in Louisiana (46%), Tennessee (41%), Oklahoma (36%) and Texas (33%), the share of voters with earnings of $20,000 or less annually was roughly double that in New Hampshire this year.

Put another way: In New Hampshire last month, there were three Democratic voters who earned at least $40,000 annually for every one voter that earned $20,000 or less. But in Louisiana four years ago, the ratio was virtually reversed, with 2.42 low-income voters for every upper-income voter. In Tennessee in 1988, the ratio of low- to upper-income voters was 1.86 to one; in Oklahoma it was 1.5 to one; in Texas 1.2 to one.

Education tells the same story. Well-educated voters comprise a much smaller share of the Southern electorate than in Maryland or New Hampshire. In the latter state, college-educated Democrats cast roughly twice as many ballots last month as those with high school educations or less.

In the Southern Super Tuesday states, by contrast, voters with, at most, high school educations outnumbered those with college or advanced degrees in almost all of the 1988 Democratic presidential primaries, according to the ABC exit polls. The sole exceptions were Texas and Florida, where the ratio was virtually even between voters with college degrees and those with high school educations or less.

Well-educated white voters--Tsongas’ core constituency--should play a somewhat larger role in the South this year. That’s because the absence of Jesse Jackson from the race is likely to depress turnout among blacks, fewer of whom have college degrees than whites in the South. But the results in Georgia suggest that change is unlikely to be dramatic enough to significantly influence the results.

Also as in Georgia, Clinton should benefit from the large percentage of black Democratic voters across the South. Clinton defeated Tsongas among black voters by 5 to 1 in Georgia, and more than 2 to 1 in Maryland. Even with lower black turnout, that imbalance could be crippling in states such as Mississippi and Louisiana--where blacks constituted more than 40% of the 1988 primary electorate--as well as Tennessee, where they made up about one-fourth.

For Tsongas, analysts agree, the best hope of picking up delegates in the South is targeting suburban growth areas. There’s more to aim at than there used to be: During the 1980s, population in suburban areas in the South grew at a 2.2% annual rate, faster than either rural or urban areas, said Richard L. Forstall, a staff analyst at the Census Bureau. From 1985 through 1990 alone, more than 1.3 million people from other regions of the country migrated to the South, many of them white-collar service workers who settled in suburbia, said Kasarda. More Southerners now live in the suburbs than either the inner-cities or rural areas.

But even after that growth, the South is still the least suburbanized region of the country--and its suburbs are concentrated primarily outside cities in Florida, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina (the latter state holds its primary May 5). That demography is driving Tsongas’ strategy, just as it did Dukakis’.

But matching Dukakis’ Super Tuesday results will not be easy for Tsongas, particularly in Texas, analysts say. “I don’t think anyone can expect Tsongas to do as well as we did,” says Susan Estrich, who ran Dukakis’ 1988 campaign and now teaches at USC law school. “But the question is can he do as well as Clinton has done elsewhere: which is a strong second.”

In Texas, Estrich notes, Dukakis’ narrow victory rested on three key factors: the money to begin precisely targeting white suburban voters outside Dallas, Houston and Austin three months before the vote; a strong showing among Latinos in South Texas, and the split of urban black and rural white votes between Jackson on one side, and Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. and Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt on the other.

But Tsongas has only recently had the funds to seek votes in Texas, and he faces in Clinton a candidate who has little competition for both blacks and rural whites--as well as an imposing base of endorsements among Latinos. Together, these three groups could make up at least two-thirds of the vote next Tuesday, said Matthew Dowd, an Austin-based political consultant.

Brown, meanwhile, could peel away voters otherwise likely to favor Tsongas in Austin and other university communities. That demography suggests Tsongas is unlikely to mount much of a threat in Texas “unless he can break into the Hispanic vote,” says Dowd.

With its suburban sprawl, Florida looks much more promising for Tsongas. Dukakis’ share of the vote in Florida was 41%--8 points higher than his showing in Texas, and nearly as much as Jackson, Gore and Gephardt combined.

In last Tuesday’s Georgia primary, Tsongas ran evenly with Clinton among voters born outside of the South--many of them suburbanites. In Florida, said pollster Robert Joffee, such non-native voters will probably constitute a significantly greater share of the electorate than in Georgia, where they were only 15% of the total.

“Florida is a place where you can depend on those suburban voters and come out in good shape,” said Carrick, the Democratic strategist. But Estrich cautioned that Tsongas, who was virtually unknown in Florida before his New Hampshire victory, may not have had enough time--or money--to effectively reach his suburban constituency in a vast state with no less than eight major media markets.

“We didn’t just wave at those voters the last week before the primary,” she said. “One of the problems Tsongas has in trying to emulate the Dukakis strategy is that organizationally it is Clinton who is like Dukakis, not Tsongas.”

Voter Preference: Education and Race

Education level: Better-educated voters have tended to support former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, while less-educated voters have been more likely to back Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. That trend bodes well for Clinton in the seven Southern and border states with contests this Tuesday. Here is the ratio of voters with a high school degree or less to voters with a college education or more in the 1988 Democratic presidential contests in these states:

Louisiana: 2 to 1

Tennessee: 1.55 to 1

Mississippi: 1.34 to 1

Missouri: 1.25 to 1

Oklahoma: 1.22 to 1

Florida: 1.06 to 1

Texas: .95 to 1

Race: Black voters have supported Clinton by large margins. Here are the percentages of white and black voters in 1988 Democratic presidential contests in the seven Southern and border states voting Tuesday:

White Black Florida 81% 14% Louisiana 55 41 Mississippi 50 46 Missouri 88 8 Oklahoma 85 8 Tennessee 75 23 Texas 67 18

Source: 1988 ABC News Exit Polls.