POLITICS

Independent Voters Swing Dems' Way

Since 1968, the Republican Party has repeatedly capitalized on controversial Democratic stands to win over swing voters - stands on civil rights, women's rights, busing, affirmative action, gay rights, crime and the use of force.

In the current election cycle, the shoe is on the other foot. The swing electorate appears, for the moment, to be leaning Democratic.

"The story of this period is that independents now line up closer to the Democrats than to Republicans," said Andy Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. "Independents are so down on Bush, so down on the war, that that is a real problem for these Republican candidates once they get past arguing with each other."

A major
[pdf]
seeking to identify characteristics of independent voters, conducted by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, found that unaligned voters view the Democratic Party favorably by a 55-41 margin, and the Republican Party unfavorably, 55-41. Independents were asked which party they prefer on 10 different issues, and they chose the Democrats on nine issues, including healthcare, 48-20; the situation in Iraq, 44-28; global warming, 49-21; and on such social issues as abortion and gay marriage, 43-26. The only issue on which independents preferred Republicans was "the U.S. campaign against terrorism," 39 GOP, 30 Democrat.

"The Republican Party is fragmented, and it really poses a problem," said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster, currently unaffiliated with any candidate, who recently conducted a study [pdf] comparing the GOP electorate of 1997 to that of 2007. Fabrizio found, furthermore, that the median age of Republican voters has risen substantially over the past 10 years: in 1997, 28 percent were over 55; in 2007, 41 percent were. The percentage of Republicans between the age of 18 and 34 has dropped from 25 to 17, and those between 34 and 55 dropped from 44 percent to 40 percent. This suggests that, at least in the short run, Republican ranks face the threat of depletion.

Yet another difficulty facing the GOP is that there are now significant numbers of Republicans who support government social insurance programs in the areas of health care; the Social Security system as it is now constituted; and strengthened protection for the retired and elderly. In addition, a not insignificant minority of GOP voters now oppose the war.

"In 2004, we needed 93 percent of [registered] Republicans to vote Republican. We can't afford to have 10 or 15 percent stolen by Democrats, especially when we are upside down with independents," Fabrizio said.

The opposition of Republican Senators and congressmen to liberalized immigration reform legislation has also threatened the ability of the GOP to win a majority in the electoral college. Such key states as Texas, Florida, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada all have substantial Hispanic populations, and leaders of the Latino community, including social conservatives, have become open and outspoken critics of the GOP.

Many of the difficulties of the contemporary Republican Party grow out of recent shifts in public attitudes. The Pew Center, in an exhaustive
found:

Increased public support for the social safety net, signs of growing public concern about income inequality, and a diminished appetite for assertive national security policies....[At the same time] the proportion of Americans who support traditional social values has edged downward since 1994....Even more striking than the changes in some core political and social values is the dramatic shift in party identification that has occurred during the past five years. In 2002, the country was equally divided along partisan lines: 43% identified with the Republican Party or leaned to the GOP, while an identical proportion said they were Democrats. Today, half of the public (50%) either identifies as a Democrat or says they lean to the Democratic Party, compared with 35% who align with the GOP.

However, while polling and other analyses are overwhelmingly favorable to the Democrats, there are some significant cautionary notes. The Pew study warned that "the Democrats' growing advantage in party identification is tempered by the fact that the Democratic Party's overall standing with the public is no better than it was when President Bush was first inaugurated in 2001. Instead, it is the Republican Party that has rapidly lost public support, particularly among political independents. Faced with an unpopular president who is waging an increasingly unpopular war, the proportion of Americans who hold a favorable view of the Republican Party stands at 41%, down 15 points since January 2001. But during that same period, the proportion expressing a positive view of Democrats has declined by six points, to 54%."

An even more serious challenge for the Democrats has been noted by Cornell Belcher, the pollster for the Democratic National Committee under Howard Dean and for the Obama presidential campaign. A June 2007 report [pdf] by Belcher's firm, Brilliant Corners, and the Third Way, a pro-Democratic advocacy organization, found that "the public remains wary about Democrats on national security, and voters maintain some residual faith in Republicans when it comes to defending the nation." Among independent voters, Democrats were viewed, according to the Belcher study, as "unwilling to use military force, event when it's necessary to protect America" by a 59-38 margin; and as "not tough enough to do what is needed to protect America" by a 57-41 margin.

The Belcher-Third Way analysis concluded, "In November (2006), voters provided Democrats with an historic opportunity . . . . But at this moment, the jury is still out. Democrats can win voters' trust, take advantage of recent Republican woes and shake off the hangover of Vietnam, but only if they are clear that what they seek is an effective, offensive national security strategy that takes the fight directly to this nation's enemies."