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Unhappy Republicans Weigh Switch

By Richard L. Fricker
April 19, 2008

Editor’s Note: Sometimes anecdotal evidence is just that, anecdotal – reflecting the view of only a small number of people. Other times, anecdotal evidence can be meaningful, suggesting a larger trend or at least the possibility of one.

Oklahoma-based journalist Richard L. Fricker was surprised when chatting with his Republican niece to find that she wasn’t happy with John McCain and was open to voting for Barack Obama -- but was hostile toward Hillary Clinton, a pattern that the latest Washington Post poll also has detected.

Seated amid the clatter and chatter of a mall food court in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I was reminded of the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous saying, “All politics is local.”

O’Neill’s observation came to mind as I was having lunch with Penny, my 39-year-old niece, a mom with a child in “Christian” day-care, a Presbyterian, a manager of an upscale jewelry store, a wife of a department store manager – and, oh yes, a Republican.

She and her husband embraced Republicanism a decade ago, during the sordid scandals of the Clinton years and her ties to the GOP grew stronger during the early stages of George W. Bush’s presidency amid the patriotism around 9/11 and the “war on terror.”

Today, however, they are planning to vote for Barack Obama, if given the chance.

Penny told me that many of her Republican friends – in the workplace, at their church and in their social circles – will jump from the Republican ship, mostly because they don’t want John McCain and are tired of Bush’s policies.

“McCain is just a Bush clone and offers nothing for us, our future or our kids. And, he wants to keep the [Iraq] war going.” she said.

But the jump to the Democrats comes with one caveat:

“There’s no way I’d vote for Clinton, I just don’t like her. If the choice is Clinton-McCain, it will be McCain.”

Contrary to the recent pundit chatter about whether Obama is an “elitist” because he described some out-of-work Pennsylvanians as “bitter,” Penny felt the opposite. “When I hear Clinton, I feel she’s talking down to me; Obama talks to me,” she said.

Penny’s negative feelings were almost as strong about McCain, because she views him as out of touch on key issues: the economy, the war, jobs and the future in general.

To Penny, a McCain administration – after eight years of George W. Bush – would mean that “I’ll never see my Social Security; I have no idea how to train my daughter for the future; or if there will be any jobs left in this country.”

McCain’s Concern

The threat that people like Penny pose for McCain’s candidacy is very real, according to Alan Abramowitz, the Alban W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University.

“There has been a shift toward the Democratic Party in the suburbs,” Abramowitz said. “There is a perception by moderate Republicans that the party has been taken over by hard-line religious conservatives. Abortion and gay rights have lost their power. It’s hard to get people agitated on those issues considering the economy.”     
Though “the GOP has been able to live off 9/11 for a couple of elections, voters have moved on to other issues,” Abramowitz told me – especially those issues that resonated in the lunch with my niece: the economy and the war.

A recent New York Times/CBS News survey found 81 per cent of Americans thinking the nation’s economy is on the wrong track. Considering that five years ago only 35 per cent felt the country was in trouble, this is a remarkable shift. The poll also found the dissatisfaction spanning all demographic and social groups.

The Pew Research Center found the same broad dissatisfaction, with 25 percent saying their economic situation had not improved and 31 percent claiming to have fallen backward. Pew found that 79 percent of those contacted believe it is now more difficult to maintain their standard of living than it was five years ago.

Pew Research found, too, that the percentage of those who identify as Republican is at its lowest point since 1992 when the first President George Bush was turned out of office. Also worrisome to the GOP was that the survey found more independents leaning Democratic than Republican.

Though McCain appears to be holding his own in theoretical head-to-head match-ups with Obama and Clinton, those results may reflect the divisive Democratic primary battle at a time when the Republicans have settled on their candidate.

Abramowitz, author of Voice of the People: Elections and Voting Behavior in the United States, said a problem for McCain is that GOP defectors “have already made up their minds” about breaking with the party in 2008; it’s not clear he can woo them back.

Another threat to Republican candidates is that defectors “usually vote a straight ticket,” Abramowitz said.

That could influence even as Red a state as Oklahoma, where Penny lives. Sen. Jim Inhofe, a GOP ideologue and a staunch war supporter, is up for re-election. If straight-ticket defectors turn out in large numbers, Inhofe may find himself in trouble.

While Tip O’Neill surely had a point when he said “all politics is local,” the Republicans appear, too, to be facing a disadvantage nationally. Nevertheless, they still have a potent political/media apparatus that has proven itself adept at crippling Democratic candidates whose chances appear bright in the spring but darken by the fall.

“The election will be close, but I think it’s the Democrats’ to lose,” Abramowitz said. “People want a change and John McCain is walking into some strong winds.”

But the key, according to Abramowitz, is whether the Democrats can achieve unity – and that so far has proved very elusive.

Richard L. Fricker is a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based freelance reporter/writer and two-time winner of the American Business Press Editors Award for Investigative Journalism. Fricker can be reached at .

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