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Republican Party finds its voter base severely eroded

No matter who "wins" the presidential debates this week, the 1992 election has already produced one loser: the Republican Party.

The ideological and demographic underpinnings have been kicked out from under the powerful coalition of voters that gave the GOP control of the White House for 20 of the last 24 years.

Surface evidence of disarray can be seen in the anemic levels of support for George Bush, and in the refusal of such groups as the National Rifle Association and the Veterans of Foreign Wars to climb aboard a Bush bandwagon.

Add to this the precipitous decline in financial backing for the Republicans after two decades in which the GOP used its overwhelming cash advantage over the Democrats to build a high-tech political machine. Heading into the final weeks of the campaign, a cash-poor GOP is considering cutting sharply its voter-contact program.

But these are only symptoms of the abrupt loss of conservative vitality seen in the election so far.

Among all the setbacks to the GOP this year, two stand out: a demographic realignment and an ideological upheaval.

The core of the ideological shift is a rethinking of liberalism. Where once Republicans were able to play on a sense among voters that social-welfare initiatives had produced the opposite of intended results, now crucial swing white voters no longer see liberalism as a principal source of national disorder and inequity. For this they have substituted the perceived failure of GOP economic initiatives.

The major component of the demographic shift is the defection of younger voters to the Democratic Party. Young voters now favor Democrats over Republicans by a 60-to-40 margin _ a total reversal of past voting patterns. The change gives the Democrats a solid edge among a segment that represents 20 percent of total turnout. It also gives the Democrats a rich source of volunteers.

In the long run, the reversal of support among the young means the GOP can no longer depend on a generational infusion to obtain a plurality and perhaps majority of voters. In addition to losing this source of ascendancy, the GOP is forfeiting a constituency that countered the party's image as staid and middle-aged.

A second source of Republican growth had been the steady building of GOP allegiance in the suburbs. This trend, too, has halted, at least for the moment. Suburbanites, like young voters, are crucial in the struggle between the major parties. One finding of the 1988 election that devastated the Democratic leaders was that Michael S. Dukakis was strongest in urban areas experiencing little or no growth, while Bush's margins, in virtually every state, were largest in high-growth suburban communities along interstate corridors.

Now polls show suburbs that had been bastions of Republican support are evenly split between the candidates, and Democratic identification is rising.

The third demographic leg supporting the Republican coalition has been a segment of the white working class. This leg has been broken by economic stagnation, the decline of high-paying manufacturing jobs and the anger of workers who increasingly have come to connect conservative Republican regulatory and economic policy with the break-up of corporate employers, the gutting of the leverage of unions and the export of jobs overseas.

It is obvious that the collapse of Republican support among working- and lower-middle-class voters, often ethnic and Catholic _ the Reagan Democrats and the hard-hat "silent majority" of the 1970s _ undermines the numerical strength of the GOP. In a subtle, but equally significant, fashion, these losses undermine the very legitimacy of conservatism.

Perhaps the most essential claim of the conservative GOP alliance that has dominated presidential politics since 1968 is that blue-collar, rowhouse support showed that the GOP was no longer just the party of corporate America.

The perception that the GOP was the home of the rich has been its central liability since 1929. Nothing helped counter this weakness more than the ability of Bush, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon to win majorities in places like the 23rd Ward, surrounding Chicago's Midway Airport in the congressional district represented by Democrat Bill Lipinski; or the votes of white auto and steel workers in Parma, Ohio, and Warren, Mich.

Unless there is a radical change between now and Nov. 3, all signs suggest that Bush and the Republican Party face decisive defeat in these neighborhoods.

Talking this year with voters in many of the neighborhoods that were angriest with the Democratic Party and liberalism in the 1980s, I found what could best be described as bipartisan fury. The Republican Party can no longer depend on the nexus of anger and resentment toward liberalism and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, because these dissatisfactions now cut across party lines.

Now, for every voter who has a relative or friend who lost out on a job opportunity or promotion because of affirmative action (blamed, rightly or wrongly, on the Democrats and liberalism) there are voters who know someone, maybe themselves, who lost a job _ period.

Many of these jobs have been permanently lost, because takeover attempts forced their employer to assume huge debts that in turn forced layoffs, or their division was eliminated because it was only marginally profitable, or their plant was moved to Mexico or Taiwan. Rightly or wrongly, this is blamed on the economics of the Reagan-Bush era.

Tom Edsall covers politics for the Washington Post and is the co-author with his wife Mary Edsall of Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights and Taxes on American Politics.

Washington Post