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Class Divisions Among Democrats Pit Primary Calendar Against Gore

Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

As if he doesn’t have enough problems, Vice President Al Gore may be looking at a calendar trap in the Democratic presidential primary.

The threat is straightforward. The states where Gore is likely to be strongest--mostly the South and the Midwest--are now concentrated toward the back of next year’s primary calendar. Conversely, the states where Bill Bradley has the most potential--mostly in the Northeast and along the West Coast--dominate the early stages of the contest. The risk to Gore is that he could be fatally wounded by a Bradley surge before he can even fight on his strongest ground. “If you were to design a calendar that would be friendly to a candidate with Bill Bradley’s profile . . . it might look like a lot like this one,” says one senior Bradley advisor.

The way the race is developing, two states now look most likely to play the pivotal roles: New Hampshire and California. If Gore, who now trails Bradley in New Hampshire, comes back to win the state, the vice president may quell the former New Jersey senator’s challenge without too much trouble. But if Bradley wins New Hampshire on Feb. 1, Gore may not be able to survive unless he wins California five weeks later on March 7.

To see why, it’s important to understand the demographic divisions that are emerging in the Democratic race. So far, the contest is fissuring along lines of class and race. Bradley is running best with college-educated voters, especially whites. Gore is running best with African Americans, Latinos and high-school educated whites.

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These divisions are reaching gaping proportions in early polls. In New York, for instance, the latest Marist Institute survey found Gore and Bradley tied, 42% to 42%. But Bradley led Gore by 21 points among college graduates, while Gore led Bradley by 31 points among high school graduates. Gore led among blacks and Latinos, Bradley among whites.

Likewise, the latest CNN/Time survey showed Bradley with a narrow 3-point advantage over Gore in virtually all-white New Hampshire. But Gore led Bradley by 24 points among voters with a high school education or less, while Bradley held a 23-point lead among college graduates. Independents, who can vote in Democratic primaries in New Hampshire, gave Bradley a second boost: He led among them by 31 points, while Gore led by 9 points among Democrats.

This educational divide--which appears also in national surveys--follows the pattern of earlier Democratic races featuring candidates with socially liberal, self-consciously apolitical profiles like Bradley’s. Both Gary Hart in 1984 and Paul Tsongas in 1992 ran better with college graduates than with minorities and high-school educated whites--who tend to respond to more economically and culturally populist messages. Bradley’s basketball background gives him some potential appeal to blue-collar men--but probably not enough to fundamentally change this demographic pattern.

That means Bradley is likely to run best in states with a high percentage of college-educated white voters and fewer minorities. As it turns out, those sort of states are stacked near the front of the Democratic calendar--especially on March 7.

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first Democratic contest comes in Iowa--whose heavy blue (collar) and gray (elderly) population favors Gore. Then comes New Hampshire, where the Democratic primary is virtually all-white, independents can vote, and more than half of the primary electorate has college degrees--among the highest share in the country. That’s perfect Bradley terrain.

Next comes the single biggest day on the Democratic calendar: the coast-to-coast showdown of March 7. If Bradley establishes himself as a viable candidate by winning New Hampshire, he would be heavily favored in the five predominantly white, generally well-educated New England states that vote that day--as well as in Minnesota, Maryland and Washington, which have similar demographic and economic profiles. With a New Hampshire boost, two of Bradley’s home states--Missouri and New York (where he played for the New York Knicks)--would likely fall to him that day too. Amid this wave, Gore could count reliably only on Georgia and South Carolina (if it votes that day.)

In that scenario, two states also voting on March 7 could decide whether Gore lives to fight another day. One is Ohio--whose heavy blue-collar tilt should give Gore an edge. Then there’s California--where the demography seems more evenly matched. Half of the Democratic voters in last year’s gubernatorial primary had college degrees--but 40% were black and Latino. It also remains to be seen which of the two will better fit the state stylistically. “California voters make a judgment about who they find more culturally attuned to the state and, with these two guys, it’s hard to figure out which one will do better on that score,” says Los Angeles-based Democratic consultant Bill Carrick.

After a quick Mountain State pit stop on March 10--here the two might split the three states voting--the calendar turns back in Gore’s favor. On March 14 come six Southern states, where college graduates are much less plentiful, African Americans much more so, and Bradley’s social liberalism a burden. (Like Hart and Tsongas, Bradley will probably try to pick off Florida, the most northern of the Southern states.) Bookending the South are primaries in Michigan (March 11) and Illinois (March 21), where Gore should have a slight edge. (In both states only about 40% of Democratic voters have college degrees.) Add to the mix the vice president’s greater support among the party’s official “superdelegates"--who’ll cast about one-third of the convention ballots needed to win--and a long battle favors Gore.

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These calculations could all change if Bradley can break into the union halls, or Gore suddenly stirs the upscale Starbucks set. But it’s entirely possible that neither one will. And if Bradley establishes his credibility by winning New Hampshire, that means he could push Gore to the edge March 7--and perhaps over it, if Bradley can simultaneously capture both New York and California. What’s the bottom line? As frantically as Gore is laboring to shore up New Hampshire, it may be just as urgent for him to fortify the fire wall he is trying to construct in California.

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See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times’ Web site at: https://www.latimes.com/brownstein.


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