Voter support widens for Democratic Party

National survey finds lead over Republicans in party identification

November 12, 1999|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- One year before the 2000 election, the Democratic Party holds its biggest lead over the Republican Party since the early part of this decade, according to an extensive new national voter survey.

If that trend continues, the Democrats' strength could translate into a significant advantage in the fight for control of Congress. It could also foreshadow an extremely close contest for the White House next November.

A bright spot for Republicans remains Texas Gov. George W. Bush's continuing edge in the presidential race over his potential Democratic rivals. Voter support for Bush remains soft, however, and in recent weeks his popularity has slipped slightly.

The findings in the poll of more than 5,000 Americans, by the independent Pew Research Center, are in line with other recent national surveys.

They show that on the issues of greatest importance to voters, such as health care reform, education and Social Security, Americans tend to favor Democrats.

In analyzing the results of their survey, the authors describe a turn-of-the-century mood in America that more closely resembles the contented postwar years of the 1950s and early '60s than the late '80s and the '90s.

"Moderation is back," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew center.

Criticism of Washington and cynicism over politics, though still high by historical standards, have eased, particularly among those in the political center, at a time of economic prosperity at home and relative peace abroad.

Middle-of-the-road swing voters are among the least angry and most financially contented of all Americans, the poll found, unlike the early 1990s, when centrist voters felt financially pressed and disgusted with Washington.

William J. Connelly, a Washington and Lee University political scientist, credits President Clinton's successful effort in "redefining the Democratic Party as more centrist. That is a model that Republicans are now inclined to emulate."

Americans are now clearly less interested in political outsiders and newcomers than they were earlier in the '90s, the poll found.

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman agrees that "there is no question that some of the venom has gone out of people's attitudes toward politics. The combination of Ross Perot's insanity and the failure of the Republican revolution in Congress has caused people to reject change for change's sake."

Moderate Republicans

The Pew study traces the emergence of a new, clearly defined moderate wing of the Republican Party, made up of those who are financially well-off, relatively well-educated and highly religious, including a large number of Catholic voters. Pro-business and pro-military in attitude, these moderates consider themselves strong environmentalists, believe government often does a better job than people give it credit for, are less loyal to the GOP than other Republicans and give Clinton relatively high job approval ratings.

Overall, the survey found that more than one in three registered voters (34 percent) now identify themselves as Democrats, while 27 percent call themselves Republicans and 39 percent are independent.

Ten years ago, the two major parties were dead even in voter self-identification. And as recently as 1995, after the Republican takeover of Congress, the GOP had nudged slightly ahead. But political setbacks that began during the tenure of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich continue to hurt the Republicans.

The sharpest losses have come among voters under age 30. Five years ago, Republicans held a 4 percentage point advantage in that age group; today, Democrats enjoy a 7-point lead.

At the same time, the fastest-growing segment of the population -- voters age 65 and up -- is trending Republican. The 14-percentage point Democratic advantage among older voters in 1994 has dwindled to 6 points.

Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, said one reason for the shift is that the New Deal generation, once among the most solid Democratic groups, is dwindling. Older voters also tend to be more concerned about morality, "and Bill Clinton helped drive them away with some of his shenanigans," even though the Democrats are seen as the stronger protectors of Medicare and Social Security.

Conversely, Ayres said, members of Generation X may have been turned off by the Republicans' emphasis on moral values.

Control of Congress

Looking ahead to next year's congressional elections, the poll found that Democrats are favored by 49-43 percent over the Republicans. A recent CBS/New York Times survey revealed a similar Democratic edge that would almost certainly cost Republicans their slender majority in the House if the election were held today.

When voters were asked which issues the next president should focus on, Democrats again came out ahead. Social Security, Medicare and education were listed as the top priorities, and Democrats were regarded as more likely to do a better job on those issues.

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