Who Won the New Economy Voter?
More prosperous, tech-savvy independents chose Bush

Four years ago, Republican Presidential hopeful Bob Dole ignored all talk of a ''New Economy'' as if it were some passing fad. Not surprisingly, the workers and executives in the burgeoning technology sector voted overwhelmingly for President Bill Clinton and his cyberwhiz running mate, Al Gore.

This year, Texas Governor George W. Bush avoided making the same mistake. He embraced the New Economy, wooed high-tech execs, eagerly endorsed the tech agenda, and campaigned aggressively in the silicon centers that dot the American landscape. On Election Day, aided by a backlash against Gore's populist corporation-bashing, Bush erased the Democratic edge among New Economy voters, reeled in most of the straying Republicans who had voted for Clinton in 1996, and won the support of the majority of independent voters with tech-related jobs.

SWELLING RANKS. While preferences varied by region, New Economy voters arguably helped Bush in the closely contested states of Florida and Colorado. They also contributed to his victories in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. This emerging voting bloc now makes up about one-third of the electorate, according to the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press--and it's likely to grow in coming elections.

Who are the New Economy voters? They work in tech-related jobs in the service sector and tend to be fiscal conservatives who are pro-business, pro-choice, liberal to moderate on social issues, and deeply pro-environment. They are strong backers of new gun curbs and while suspicious of Big Government, they favor federal regulation of Corporate America that benefits consumers. Most of them tend to be ambivalent about--or hostile to--affirmative action and welfare.

Politically, they are ticket-splitters turned off by extremists in both major parties. The Pew Center divides them into three distinct subgroups: centrist New Democrats, Moderate Republicans, and New Prosperity Independents.

While these technocentric workers hold similar views, their voting patterns in 2000 often followed party lines. New Democrats favored Gore by more than 8-1, according to post-election Pew interviews, while GOP moderates backed Bush by a similar ratio. Bush made major gains, however, among New Prosperity Independents, who had backed Clinton over Dole by 3% in 1996. This time, the GOP standard-bearer led Gore among these voters, 2-1.

What has changed? For many New Econ voters, Bush was a more moderate and palatable choice than the acerbic Kansas conservative of 1996. Many others say Gore doesn't share Clinton's pro-business outlook. ''Clinton had vision,'' says Richard W. Lowenthal, 48, a former vice-president at Cisco Systems Inc. who now advises high-tech startups. ''He favored positive social change through business success.'' Lowenthal backed Clinton in 1992 and 1996 but switched to Bush in 2000. Why? ''Gore's platform was a long list of things we should spend money win over certain segments of voters.''

SPLIT LOYALTY. Despite GOP gains, New Economy voters remain up for grabs. A BUSINESS WEEK election analysis and interviews with New Economy voters across the country show that neither party has cemented the loyalty of this growing bloc of swing voters.

The reason for such divided allegiances? Both parties are out of sync with the world view of New Economy voters. Most see Republicans as right on government spending and regulation--but too far right on social issues such as abortion, gun control, and gay rights. ''Republicans like [House Majority Whip] Tom DeLay and [Senate GOP Leader] Trent Lott come across as pompous and arrogant,'' says Mary C. Kovach, a purchasing agent at Computer Sciences Corp. in Sterling Heights, Mich. ''If they got rid of guys like that, it might make it easier for me to vote for them.'' Kovach, an independent, voted for Gore.

But Democrats don't fare any better among the tech set. While embracing the New Democrats' positions on social tolerance and fiscal responsibility, Info Age workers see many national Democrats as too quick to bash business and too far left on issues such as welfare and minority rights. Democrats ''have to watch the Outrageous Left--the real extremists like Jesse Jackson,'' says Brenda M. Waldron, an administrator at Experior Testing Inc. in Fairfax, Va., which conducts statewide exams. Waldron calls herself a New Democrat but voted for Bush.

Like other voters, the New Econs are susceptible to regional and religious influences. Techies in the Northeast and Midwest were more likely to go for Gore, while their Sunbelt siblings leaned to Bush. According to ABC News exit polls, Gore was the heavy favorite of independents in the tech belt of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Bush got the nod in similar parts of North Carolina and Colorado.

What's more, tech workers also divided on the basis of religion, with white Protestants strongly favoring Bush and Catholics and Jews backing Gore by an even wider margin. Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus says that many New Economy voters in his swing state are the sons and daughters of ''Reagan Democrats'' who are ''living the lives their parents only dreamed of.'' Independent and largely Catholic, they were turned off by the size of Bush's tax cut and the harsh tone of his Religious Right allies, Sarpolus says. They backed maverick John McCain in the GOP primary, then shifted to Gore.

The Veep's strong showing in Northern New Economy suburbs proved pivotal in his Pennsylvania and Michigan victories: He carried Philadelphia and historically Republican counties near Detroit. This meltdown in the Northern suburbs worries GOP officials. ''We have to be far more moderate, far more tolerant, and far more inclusive,'' warns Connecticut Governor John G. Rowland. ''If we don't work towards that, worse things are going to happen to '02 and '04.''

Indeed, despite Gore's troubles, Democratic strategists think New Economy voters will become an integral part of a winning electoral formula for the 21st century. Their dream: a loyal Democratic core of minorities, union members, and working women, supplemented by New Economy independents. ''There's a change in the old New Deal coalition,'' says G. Terry Madonna, a pollster at Millersville University in Millersville, Pa. ''We're seeing an urban-suburban alliance against [Republicans in] rural America.''

''PERFECTION.'' For the time being, Republicans are basking in a Bush victory, aided by a narrow edge among New Economy voters. GOP strategists predict that after four years of Republican rule, techies will forget about the prosperity of the Clinton era and revert to the historic home of most other well-educated, affluent voters: the Republican Party.

That kind of optimism may be premature, because both parties now see the importance of the New Econ bloc and will shape strategies to snare it. ''If someone could meld the best of Republican views and the best of Democratic views, that would be perfection,'' says moderate Republican Mimi Calfee of Lake Forest, Ill. ''I'd like a party that was a moderate party.'' Of course, that won't happen until Dems and Republicans listen to the electorate and craft a delicate coalition between their hardcore bases and the more pragmatic denizens of New Economy America.

By Richard S. Dunham in Washington, with Ann Therese Palmer in Chicago

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