BY contemporary standards, the 1992 presidential campaign is late in starting. Nineteen months from the final balloting, only three Democrats - George McGovern, Paul Tsongas, and Douglas Wilder - have taken preliminary steps toward becoming candidates for their party's nomination; no ``big gun'' has declared himself. The Gulf crisis, and the enormous popular standing George Bush owns, in part as a result of his handling of the crisis, explains the reluctance. In the end there will be no shortage of able Democrats seeking to take the president on. But given the position in which it finds itself, the party has an acute need to field its strongest candidate, not just an able one.
The Democratic Party's problem with the presidency is well known. It has won the office only once in the last quarter century. As a result, an entire generation of party leaders have been denied national executive experience. While Congress has remained in Democratic hands, the federal judiciary has, inevitably in this era of GOP presidents, come substantially under Republican control.
``Wait until 1996'' is hardly sound strategy, then. But since the incumbent Republican is unlikely to be a pushover, and the times unlikely to generate a clamor for change, the Democrats' only real chance to win next year rests on their nominating a commanding leader.
Every presidential election is important to both parties, but 1992 is critically so for the Democrats. Looking at the matter purely in terms of electoral standing, 1992's special significance for the party involves its urgent need to reduce the slide in Democratic identification since the late 1970s. The US is on the edge of tipping decisively Republican for the first time since the 1920s.
To see what's been happening just below the surface of national politics, we need to understand how realignments - the supplanting of one party majority by another - take place in the US. Once people have been in the electorate for a while and developed a history of party allegiance, they have proved very hard to move.
Even the Great Depression converted relatively few Republicans to ongoing Democratic ties. The Democrats established majority status largely by capturing the loyalties of voters who first entered the electorate during the New Deal era. Generational conversion is key to a successful realignment. By the 1950s, the Democrats had acquired an enormous amount of ``generational capital'' - age cohorts who had come of age politically and formed their partisan attachments at times when the party was seen as the most effective in governing.
Recent surveys have generally shown the two parties about even in partisan identification. A national poll taken last month by the Los Angeles Times, just after the Gulf war, put the GOP up by about 12 percentage points, once those saying they ``lean'' to one party or the other are factored in alongside firmly declared partisans - the first time in the history of polling a clear Republican majority has been shown. Still, this survey finding is exceptional; parity is the predominant result.
The overall evenness masks, however, a huge generational conversion. Surveys done by the Gallup Organization for Newsweek from October 1989 through March 1991 - whose large combined number of respondents (roughly 12,500) helps iron out the random and short-term bounces that affect individual surveys - indicate that every age group coming of age politically since the late 1970s has been captured by the GOP. One has to go back to the first half of the 1970s to find a cohort with a Democratic advantage. (S ee the Table.)
The GOP does better among some categories of young people than others, of course, reflecting patterns in its strength throughout the entire electorate. Nonetheless, the party finds the young its best age cohort in every social group in the population.
Among women, who support Republicans less than men do, those under 30 years old are now 36 percent Republican (according to the Gallup surveys) and 29 percent Democratic. In contrast, those 60 and older are 45 percent Democratic and just 34 percent Republican.
The Democrats have a huge margin among all groups of blacks, but it is considerably smaller among 18-29-year-olds (37 percentage points) than among those 60 and older (69 points). Southern whites in the 18-29 cohort favor the GOP by 44 to 26 percent, whereas those in their 60s and older still give the Democrats a clear margin in party identification, by 44 to 31 percent.
For a long time, the normal cycle of human mortality greatly favored the Democrats. The oldest groups - who had come of age prior to the Depression - were the Republican strongholds, hence each passing year saw the GOP's generational base erode. That cycle has ended. With the exception of the small band of Americans in their 80s and older, the oldest citizens - the New Deal generation - are the Democrats' best groups. For the first time in probably 70 years, Republicans' strength is among the young.
Not only is the country divided evenly, overall, between the parties, but independents tend to favor the GOP consistently in presidential voting. One doesn't have to be a math whiz to figure out that the cycle of generational conversion shown in the table needn't be extended much further before the partisan balance tips.
We know what resulted the last time a party failed to halt its generational slide in a timely fashion: an era of Democratic ascendancy. Having already done fairly well electorally for a decade, the Republicans are now poised to reassume majority status, unless successful Democratic governance quickly intervenes.