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National Perspective | RONALD BROWNSTEIN / WASHINGTON
OUTLOOK

As Democrats Unite, GOP Divides, Campaign Is Breaking 40-Year Mold

July 01, 1996|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

It's getting so you can't tell the parties without a scorecard.

Are those the Democrats quietly looking the other way while President Clinton slaloms toward the center, jettisoning traditional liberal positions on crime, gay rights and welfare? And are those the Republicans tearing each other apart over abortion, in their best imitation of the kind of pre-convention ideological squabbling that Democrats perfected during the 1970s and 1980s?

Well, yes.

This uncharacteristic cohesion among Democratic politicos--and the parallel conflict among Republicans--is mirrored in the electorate itself. All major polls now show that Clinton enjoys more unified support among Democrats than presumptive GOP nominee Bob Dole does among Republicans. That's another entry in the lengthening list of ways in which this election is breaking the mold of the last 40 years.

Division during presidential election years has long been a uniquely Democratic hallmark. From 1952 to 1992, the Democratic presidential candidate carried a smaller percentage of his own party's voters than the Republican nominee in all but two elections. The first exception came during Lyndon B. Johnson's landslide over Barry Goldwater in 1964. The second came in 1992, and that deserves an asterisk. George Bush and Clinton each attracted a meager 10% of the voters from the opposition party; but because Ross Perot drew somewhat more Republican than Democratic votes, Bush's overall showing with GOP partisans was slightly weaker than Clinton's performance with Democrats.

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In every other election during the last 40 years, Republican voters have united behind their presidential candidate much more reliably than Democrats have. In seven of the past 11 elections, the Republican presidential nominee has won the votes of at least 90% of those Republicans voting, according to network exit polls and Gallup surveys.

No Democrat has carried that high a percentage of voters in his own party over that period. During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan peeled away so many voters from the Democrats--more than 20% in each of his two elections--that he created a new category in American politics: the culturally conservative, blue-collar Reagan Democrat.

Yet this year, the pattern is inverting. Both national and state polls now consistently show Clinton drawing support from 15% to 18% of Republicans (a recent New York Times/CBS survey put the defection as high as 25%), while Dole attracts only 6% to 8% of Democrats--leaving Clinton with about 90% of his own party. If the president can sustain this level of performance through the election, political scientists would probably shelve the Reagan Democrats and begin talking about "Clinton Republicans."

Most analysts doubt that Clinton can hold that level of Republican support. As memories of the bitter GOP primaries recede--and the party convention in August stirs partisan emotions--Dole's showing with Republicans is likely to improve, argues David Moore, the managing editor of the Gallup Poll.

Yet a closer look at the nature of the Republican defectors suggests that there is no guarantee Dole will be able to produce a reconciliation. Recent national surveys by both Gallup and the Pew Research Center show that Clinton's Republican support is concentrated among moderate GOP voters who have become a minority in an increasingly conservative party. In the Gallup polling, just 2% of Republicans who call themselves very conservative say they plan to vote for Clinton; but the president is now attracting a head-turning 26% of moderate and liberal Republicans (who constitute about 40% of the party overall).

On social issues particularly, the Clinton Republicans tilt away from the dominant current in the GOP. Nearly two-thirds of Clinton's Republican supporters say abortion should remain generally available or be only slightly restricted; 55% of Dole Republicans say abortion should be banned, or permitted solely in cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother, the Pew poll found.

Republican optimists can look at these divisions as growing pains. Democrats suffered larger defections in the past partly because they were a larger and more diverse party than the relatively homogenous GOP. As the GOP has grown--lathering social conservatives onto its Main Street and suburban foundation--it has also become more susceptible to division. Even if Dole lost 15% of Republicans, by historic Democratic standards, that wouldn't be a particularly poor performance.

The problem is that, even as Republican defection is ticking up, Democrats are displaying almost unprecedented unity. This year, Clinton became the first Democratic president to be renominated without meaningful internal opposition since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944. While Dole is banging heads with social conservatives, the Democratic interest groups have been uncharacteristically quiescent--even as Clinton swivels toward the center.

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