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GOP Rebound Requires Outreach

Republican Leaders Have So Far Done Little To Attract The Growing Crowd Of Independent Voters

While all the focus last week centered on the passing of President Obama's first 100 days in office, this week marks six months since the 2008 election. So half a year past a second-consecutive devastating election for Republicans -- in which they went further in the hole in the House and Senate and lost the presidency -- are they any better off now? Are there any signs of a rebound? The short answer would appear to be "no."

One good measurement of the health of a party is partisan affiliation or identification, determined through a pollster who asks a cross-section of adults nationwide which party they consider themselves a member of, Democratic, Republican or independent, usually rotating the sequence offered.


Combined Gallup data showed a 1-point Republican edge for 2003, while the two parties were exactly even in 2004. Then the great divide began.

Democrats pulled to an 8-point advantage for the calendar year 2008, with a 7-point edge for the fourth quarter of 2008: 35 percent Democrat, 28 percent Republican and 35 percent independent.

Indeed, since the fourth quarter of 2006, Republican Party identification has consistently remained below 30 percent. When those who profess they are independents are asked if they lean to one major party or the other, and those preferences are factored in, the Democratic advantage balloons to 13 points, 52-39 percent.


It's difficult to spot any strategies or tactics employed by Republican leaders to broaden their party.

The Pew Research Center's data show a somewhat different pattern but comparable margins. For 2008, Pew had an 11-point Democratic edge, 36-25 percent, with 32 percent independent but had each of the two major parties declining in party identification with independents picking up the slack.

In their April polling -- actually March 31-April 21 -- among 3,013 adults, with a 2-point error margin, Democrats were ahead 33-22 percent, with independents up to 39 percent.

A survey by the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies last month showed numbers that track largely along the Gallup and Pew lines.


Our good friends at have added party identification to their repertoire of great charts, plotting out all the major national polls and computing trend estimates based on regression analysis.

The default figures for show an 11-point margin: 37 percent for Democrats, 26 percent for Republicans and 34 percent for independents, with the proportion of independents increasing but not nearly as dramatically as the Pew data suggest.

Behaviorally, it's difficult to spot any strategies or tactics employed by Republican leaders to broaden their party.

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Indeed, it's hard to see anything that GOP leaders did to help Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter avoid a primary challenge from conservative former Rep. Pat Toomey. Here you had a Republican senator sitting in a state that was consecutively carried by Vice President Al Gore, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Obama, and the party did little or nothing to prevent a primary challenge from a candidate so far to the right that it is laughable to think he could win a general election. As a result, Specter left the party, and the GOP's chances of holding on to a Senate seat there effectively dropped to nil.

The best line these days about what's going on in the Republican Party is one the inimitable James Carville has been quoting columnist Mark Shields as saying: "Do you want to be in a church that's chasing out heretics, or do you want to be in a church that's trying to bring in converts?"

Right now Republicans seem more interesting in purifying their party, making it more homogeneous and harmonious rather than broadening their base, a prerequisite for winning elections.

Sooner or later Republicans will tire of languishing in third-place in a three-way race and begin thinking seriously about becoming a national party instead of the more regional, highly-segmented party they have become.

Perhaps as we mourn the passing of former Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., the model for an upbeat, optimistic, broad-minded, ideas-driven conservative, Republicans will recall what it was like before base-driven politics took over their party.

Public Opinion Strategies' pollster Neil Newhouse put it well on his firm's blog when he wrote: "For Republicans, this data reinforces the need to put aside the outdated targeting recipe for victory... and replace it with one that calls for more cross-party partisan support in order to achieve victory.... The current partisan affiliation data is the clear death knell for the 'base-style' campaigns favored by some in the early part of this decade."

Republicans will likely one day get back into power. But the question is whether it will happen sooner, by attracting new people to their party, or later, when Democrats self-destruct and Republicans win simply because they aren't Democrats. While history would suggest the latter is inevitable, that could be a long way off.

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