by Andrew Kohut, President, Pew Research Center
Are the aspirants for the Republican presidential nomination, who square off in their first debate on Thursday evening, wasting their time? After all, broad measures of voter sentiment strongly suggest that a substantial majority of the public wants change and therefore may likely vote Democratic come November 2008. Most Americans are dissatisfied with national conditions and President Bush’s approval ratings are as low as they were when his party lost control of the Congress in the fall.
Beyond discontent with the White House, Pew’s longitudinal polling on political values finds the current attitudinal landscape more favorable to the Democrats. Support for policy positions such as strengthening the social safety net has steadily increased in recent years, along with growing public concern about income inequality. At the same time, many of the key trends that nurtured the Republican resurgence in the mid-1990s have moderated. The proportion of the public supporting traditional social values has edged downward since 1994, as has the proportion of Americans expressing strong personal religious commitment
The polling also documented a dramatic change in party affiliation. 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 or Democratic-leaners. Today, half of the public (50%) lines up with the Democratic Party, compared with 35% who align with the GOP.
So why isn’t this an open and shut case that the GOP stands little chance of keeping control of the White House? The reason is that the horse race polls are showing that leading Republican candidates match up pretty well against the Democratic front runners. An early April Time survey found Rudy Giuliani in a dead heat with Barack Obama (45%-45%)and running slightly ahead of Hillary Clinton (48%-43%). The McCain ballot tests showed a similar pattern — a statistical tie with Clinton and a slight deficit with Obama. Polls by Newsweek and Fox in February and March showed essentially the same results.
A number of possible reasons can be offered for this riddle. First, horse race polls taken at this time are often incorrect: In March 1979, Carter led Reagan (52%-38%) in the Gallup Poll. Mondale led Reagan (47%-41%) in Feb 1983 and Hart led Bush (50% to 42%) in April 1987, to name a few misleading indicators. Of course, in other elections early polls pointed the way: JFK led Nixon in 1959 and, much more recently, Bush was ahead of Gore in 1999. Still it’s worth keeping in mind that, on balance, the horse race record is far from sterling.
At the least, it is certainly very early to take the polls literally. Still, there is such a disjuncture between the broader trends and what these polls are suggesting that it is hard to ignore them. Some might argue that the horse race polls may reflect the old axiom that voters put more emphasis on the person than the party. While this is certainly true, the crucial personal dimension in a period of national discontent, is whether the candidate is seen as an agent of change.
And at this early stage in the game, the Republican front runners might just fill that bill. A recent Pew survey found that most voters make a big distinction between both John McCain and Rudy Giuliani and President Bush. Both candidates are seen as less conservative than Bush, and much closer to the average voter’s own political beliefs. In contrast, Newt Gingrich was the only Republican candidate tested in the Pew poll who was placed right next to the president on a liberal-conservative scale. Gingrich, of course, is not a front runner, and most voters say they will not vote for him, if he is on the ballot in ’08
Another piece of evidence for the potential appeal of the Republican frontrunners is the support they draw from political independents—the group that was so eager for political change in 2006, and played a decisive role in the Republican congressional defeat. A recent Pew poll found that as presidential candidates both Giuliani and McCain were about as appealing to independents as were Clinton and Obama, even though a plurality of independents say they lean Democratic these days.
Of course, the very appeal of Giuliani and McCain as more centrist and politically distant from Bush threatens their viability in the GOP state primaries races where independents are often barred from voting and voters with strongly held conservative beliefs are most likely to turnout. Indeed, Republicans in Pew’s survey placed themselves very close to President Bush on the liberal-conservative continuum and quite a bit to the right of where they placed the candidates they now say they are most likely to support for the Republican nomination.
Only a minority of Republicans (44%) now favor a continuation of President Bush’s Iraq policies while about half (49%) say they prefer a GOP candidate who will take a different approach. Interestingly, this view does not appear to have eroded Republican support for McCain, despite his stalwart support for the invasion of Iraq and for Bush’s decision to step up prosecution of the ensuing war. Indeed McCain’s draws more support from those Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters who say that the war is not going well than from those who say it is going very well or fairly well and slightly more from those who want Bush to change direction than from those who would stay the course.
The message of the horse race polls for the Republican Party may be that while McCain, and Giuliani might be perceived as insufficiently conservative for a majority of GOP voters, ultimately only they, or someone else with centrist appeal, may be able to hold off the broad advantage the Democrats have going into this election.
For the Democrats, the message may be that, while there is broad discontent with Bush, which has hurt his party, their own potential nominees are not so strong that they can rule out being beaten by a Republican who is seen as an agent of change.