Party affiliations evenly split, poll finds

GOP gains in voters could be key in swing states in 2004 elections

November 06, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - A year before Election Day, the number of people who identify themselves as Republicans is significantly larger than when George W. Bush was elected president, particularly in several states such as Florida and Michigan that often prove decisive in close contests.

The gains bring the Republicans to national parity with Democrats, at least momentarily ending decades of disadvantage in voters' party identification that started when Franklin D. Roosevelt built the modern Democratic coalition in the 1930s and that endured with only occasional breaks ever since.

The result is a country split almost evenly between the parties, with 34 percent of registered voters calling themselves Democrats, 33 percent calling themselves Republicans, and 33 percent calling themselves independent or some other party, according to an in-depth survey by the Pew Research Center For The People & The Press, a nonpartisan research group.

In 15 swing states, which hold no consistent historic allegiance to either party and are up for grabs in every presidential election, the two major parties are split virtually evenly, with 33 percent overall for Republicans and 34 percent for Democrats. At the outset of the 2000 campaign, the Republican Party was at a 6-point disadvantage in the bloc. Since then Republicans have gained in 13 of the 15 states.

As a consequence of this shift, President Bush enters the campaign year with a stronger underlying partisan base than he or other Republicans have enjoyed in recent decades. Countering that, however, is rising discontent with the economy and Iraq.

"The Republican Party's gains in affiliation, if sustained into next year's general elections, may produce small but nevertheless important changes in the terrain on which the elections will be fought," Pew director Andy Kohut said.

Kohut attributed much of the improved standing to Bush's leadership in the war against terrorism. He noted that Republicans didn't gain in the initial months of Bush's presidency, before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "The Republicans have made progress because of President Bush's popularity," he said.

He and other analysts cautioned that party identification doesn't automatically predict how someone will vote, especially in presidential elections. And they noted that Republicans have scored gains before - notably at the end of the 1980s and briefly during the mid-1990s - only to see them fade away.

Still, the Pew survey might help explain recent election victories for the Republicans and confirm other polls that paint a dark future for the Democrats.

Republicans won gubernatorial elections Tuesday in Kentucky and Mississippi, a year after they scored historic gains in the House and Senate, a rare increase of seats for a president's party in his first midterm elections. Also, Democratic pollster Mark Penn released a survey this summer that he said found Democrats in their weakest position since FDR.

"This is a very different political climate than it was even a year ago," Kohut said.

Republicans gained everywhere, geographically and demographically.

Among the swing states, Republicans lead in partisan identification in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Tennessee, Florida and Wisconsin. They gained but trail in Arkansas, West Virginia, New Mexico, Louisiana, Missouri and Oregon. They are tied with Democrats in Pennsylvania.

They lost ground in two swing states, New Hampshire and Ohio.

Republicans also gained among dependably Republican states such as South Carolina and Texas - known as Red States in the 2000 election. They enjoy a solid edge of 37 percent-32 percent in their base states, up from their narrow 34 percent-33 percent advantage in 2000.

They gained slightly even among reliably Democratic states, called Blue States in the last presidential election. In California, they went from a 10-point disadvantage to a 5-point disadvantage. In Washington state, they went from a 5-point disadvantage to a 1-point edge.

"The Red States look redder, and the Blue States look paler," said Karlyn Bowman, a scholar of public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington research center.

Republicans gained among almost every major voting bloc except blacks. They gained by 8 percentage points nationally among Hispanics, though they trail Democrats 22 percent-36 percent. Their biggest improvements among Hispanics came in Florida, where they now lead 32 percent-30 percent, and in California and Texas, where they trail the Democrats by 40 percent-20 percent and 34 percent-24 percent, respectively.

Republicans also improved their standing among both genders, all income groups, all education levels, and among Roman Catholics, Protestants and Jews. Pew didn't poll Muslims because they are too small a percentage of the country to measure reliably, Kohut said.

One key reason the historic Democratic edge is eroding is a shift in demographics, Bowman noted. The generation that came of age during the Great Depression and World War II, revered Roosevelt and supported a growing, activist government is dying out. Taking its place is a young generation born during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, which is less wed to the government as benefactor and more inclined toward Republicans.

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