"Super Tuesday" is shedding new light on a continuing upheaval in southern politics, one pushing the Democratic Party toward the left while the two major factions in an increasingly strong Republican Party are on a seemingly inevitable collision course.
Creation of what amounts to a southern primary next Tuesday is causing growing anxiety among Democratic strategists who said they anticipate high participation by Democratic voters in Republican primaries that 10 years ago drew so few voters in most states that they were considered a political joke.
"It could be that we planned this huge celebration at our house," Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman said, "and the people go to the party next door. All the Republicans have to do is open the door."
Among preliminary findings in a reevaluation, forced by Super Tuesday, of the traditional view of southern politics are:Although conservative and moderate Democrats created Super Tuesday in a calculated move to shift their party to the right, they do not appear to have the votes to back up the strategy.
In the 12 southern states holding primaries Tuesday, the candidates perceived as most liberal -- Jesse L. Jackson and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis -- have 33 percent support, far more than the combined backing of the two seeking moderate and conservative votes -- Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). Together, they have 22 percent, according to the Washington Post-ABC poll of 1,122 likely Democratic voters. If Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) is considered, the vote for liberals becomes 41 percent, almost twice the level of support for Gephardt and Gore.
Conversely, the southern Republican electorate appears to have undergone an ideological sea-change during the Reagan years. In the 1960s and 1970s, the southern GOP was the party's revolutionary arm, spearheading the conservative takeover that led first to nomination of then-Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) in 1964 and repeated drives to nominate Reagan.
Now, southern Republicans are firmly on the side of the establishment candidate, Vice President Bush. He leads in the South with 59 percent, compared with 20 percent for Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and 10 percent for Pat Robertson, according to the poll of 984 likely southern Republican voters. Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), who claims that he is the legitimate heir to the Reagan revolution, has only 5 percent.
Although Robertson is not showing up as a major factor in the contest, his candidacy has turned local and state parties into battlegrounds as bloody as those in 1962-1964 when Goldwater conservatives threw out the tiny universe of Republican blacks and businessmen who controlled what had been the party of Lincoln.
In the current struggles, Robertson deserves much of the credit for a surge in Republican voter registration in the region.
The southern GOP electorate thus may have moved away from the hard right of the early Goldwater and Reagan years. But Robertson has mobilized a committed army that is challenging, and often beating, Bush forces in intraparty contests.
The southern Democratic Party, according to poll data, has been split much the way of the northern party: among better-educated whites backing Dukakis, more blue-collar and conservative whites supporting Gore and Gephardt, and blacks firmly in Jackson's camp.
Several analysts have said they view this combination as a menu for defeat in November, particularly since the high percentage of southern blacks will mean several Jackson victories.
"When a lot of white Democrats begin to associate the Democratic Party with Jesse Jackson, it's going to be devastating," University of South Carolina political scientist Earl Black said. "The Republican Party doesn't have to do anything except exist."
In time, the Democratic Party may find a way to deal successfully with race and combine conflicting constituencies in presidential elections as it has done in some Senate and gubernatorial contests in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.
In some states targeted by Robertson, GOP registration gains have been striking. In Louisiana, the number of Democrats has fallen over the last year by 31,413, while the GOP has gained 35,480. In Florida, where regular voter purges skew the figures, the GOP registered enough new voters to show a loss of only 12,813 from the rolls, while Democrats lost 239,669. In Mecklenburg County, N.C., Democratic registration has grown by 6,518 while the far smaller Republicans added 9,989 voters.
Although registration data is incomplete, preliminary evidence suggests that the Jackson campaign has not generated black Democratic registration large enough to counter Robertson-induced GOP gains.
In Louisiana, while the GOP added more than 35,000 voters, black Democratic registration grew by only 1,635. In Florida, where the GOP held its own through voter purges, the number of registered blacks fell by 73,454.
"One event like Super Tuesday is not going to be disastrous," Democratic pollster William Hamilton said. "The problem is that there can be a crystallization of events -- Reagan, the economic boom, growing Republican loyalty in the urban centers -- which, all taken together, are not good . . . . Having this hot Republican primary does not bode well for the trend."
While intensified campaigning by Democratic candidates should increase interest in that contest, preliminary findings bode ill for the presidential prospects of the party that once owned the South.
In Mississippi, Hickman said a survey of whites who had voted in the Democratic gubernatorial primary last year showed that only 35 percent intend to vote in this year's Democratic primary, while 30 percent said they will go to the GOP contest and the remainder appear likely to sit out Tuesday.
In South Carolina, a survey of 518 voters by The State newspaper showed that 319 said they would vote Republican if the election were held now.