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Any presidential candidate who takes the nation's skilled blue-collar workers for granted is making a mistake, say three sociologists who study the influence of class on voting.

Employees in the building trades, workers who operate complicated equipment and anyone with a technical manual skill are members of the class that is least likely to stick to a party line, said Michael Hout, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley."Skilled blue-collar workers, once the bedrock of the Democratic coalition, are now up for grabs," he said.

Previous studies have led social scientists to conclude that class plays far less of a role in U.S. politics than it once did. But Hout and study co-authors Jeff Manza of Pennsylvania State University and Clem Brooks of Indiana University took a new look at the traditional division of American society into white-collar and blue-collar workers.

They released their findings Monday at the American Sociological Association's 1995 conference here.

"In the 1984, '88 and '92 presidential elections, class has re-emerged as a critical factor in presidential voting" and continues to be far more influential than gender, Hout said.

The study divides the population into six groups: professionals; managers and administrators; the self-employed; "routine" white-collar workers, such as retail sales, clerical and service employees; skilled blue-collar workers; and semiskilled and unskilled blue-collar workers.

Professionals have shown the most striking change in the study of presidential elections from 1948 to 1992, Hout said, moving from being more likely to vote Republican to more likely to vote Democratic.

"Professionals, who were the most Republican class in the 1950s, have now joined the unskilled blue-collar workers and the `routine' white-collar workers - the so-called pink-collar workers because of the concentration of women - in the Democratic coalition," Hout said.

Retail sales, service and clerical workers followed professionals, "moving from modest Republican support from 1948 to 1960, to indifference from 1964 to 1984, to supporting the Democrats in 1988 and 1992."

Managers have remained solidly Republican in every election except 1956, the researchers said. The self-employed had a similar pattern.