The Commons is a weblog for concerned citizens of southeast Iowa and their friends around the world. It was created to encourage grassroots networking and to share information and ideas which have either been suppressed or drowned out in the mainstream media.

"But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection." (Henry V, Act V, Scene 4)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Voters in center may get their say

Voters in center may get their say
The GOP's reliance on its base may not be enough this time.
By Ronald Brownstein, Times Staff Writer
November 5, 2006

WASHINGTON — In American politics, this might be the year that the center strikes back.

For six years, President Bush and the Republican congressional majority have governed behind a distinctive political strategy that focuses on mobilizing their hard-core supporters with an aggressively conservative agenda, even at the price of straining relations with moderate and independent swing voters.

Indeed, key GOP strategists argue that in this polarized political era, so many Americans have hardened in their loyalty to one of the two major parties that hardly any swing voters still exist.

But this year it appears that reports of the death of the swing voter are premature.

In races in virtually every corner of the country, key Republican House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates are facing imposing, sometimes cavernous deficits in the traditional center of the electorate, among voters who describe themselves as independents and moderates.

If that trend holds through Tuesday, it may not only sweep Democrats into control of one or both chambers of Congress, but could also ignite a debate in Republican ranks over the continuing viability of the base-centered strategy devised by Bush and key advisors such as Karl Rove.

"You can make a more realistic assessment of this when you see where the losses are, but [the message] is going to be that swing voters still count, and sometimes the more you cater to your base, the more you turn off swing voters," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Stanley B. Greenberg, a veteran Democratic strategist who dueled with Bush's team in 2000 and 2004, is even more emphatic: If the election results follow the trajectory of the latest polls, he says, "I think their whole model is going to lay shattered in pieces."

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, the campaign manager for Bush's 2004 reelection campaign, disputed the suggestion that the administration had "ignored or not focused on swing and independent voters" in its political strategy.

"A huge part of my strategy has been to work on expanding the party," Mehlman said, through systematic outreach to Latinos and African Americans, and the use of advanced "micro-targeting" technology to find GOP-leaning voters in predominantly Democratic communities.

But for years, Rove and his top lieutenants have touted their belief that in this highly polarized era, fewer than 1 in 10 voters still swing in their allegiance between the parties from election to election. One of their key assumptions has been that the vast majority of voters who call themselves independents actually vote like reliable Democrats or Republicans, though they don't accept the label.

Those conclusions led the White House, in the reversal of the usual practice, to direct more of its campaign spending in 2004 toward mobilizing the Republican base than converting swing voters. It also reinforced Bush's inclination to pursue an ambitious conservative agenda at home and abroad that largely unified rank-and-file and congressional Republicans in support but generated near lock-step opposition from Democrats.

"The campaign strategy was geared toward certain policy objectives, and they governed in a certain way to promote that electoral strategy," said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. "They are intertwined."

But this year, it appears that less of the electorate is permanently locked down than the White House theories projected. With Bush's approval rating among independent voters below 30%, polls in every region of the country show independents, who made up about a quarter of the vote in each of the last two elections, moving sharply against Republican candidates.

The belief that swing voters are virtually extinct "has led to a lot of President Bush's problems," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "Because what it leads you to do is blow off the middle [in your decisions] and only worry about the base. And there are lots of voters who seem very inclined to punish President Bush in this election for behaving that way."

Tom Beggs, Chuck Dubois and Danny Bell, three businessmen from St. Joseph, Mo., for instance, are all reconsidering their support for Bush and the GOP. Each voted for Bush in 2000; Beggs and Bell voted for him again in 2004.

But all three are deeply disenchanted with Bush now, largely over the Iraq war, and intend to express their discontent by supporting Democrat Claire McCaskill in the state's hard-fought Senate race.

The president's "overall arrogance freaks me out," said Bell, who owns an insurance agency, after watching McCaskill sweep through a downtown restaurant late last week. "It's his way or no way. He won't compromise on anything. He won't make any changes. I'm going to try to get out as much of that old [Republican] regime as I can."

Dubois put an exclamation point on their sentiments when he said the group, after seeing McCaskill, planned to memorialize the president during their golf game that morning. "We're going to call every golf ball George Bush" and hit it, said Dubois, a retired contractor.

Polls suggest that the three are hardly alone in their sentiments. In the 2002 congressional contests, postelection surveys showed that Republicans ran even with independent voters. In 2004, Bush lost them narrowly to the Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry.

But this year, in contests as diverse as the gubernatorial races in Colorado and Michigan, the Senate race in Pennsylvania, the highly contested House race between Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) and New Mexico Atty. Gen. Patricia Madrid, and open Republican-held House seats in Arizona and Colorado, polls last week showed Democrats leading among independents by at least 20 percentage points.

A recent Times/Bloomberg survey showed Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown leading GOP Sen. Mike DeWine by a dozen percentage points with independents in Ohio. CNN surveys last week showed Democratic Senate candidates holding leads of 7 to 9 percentage points with independent voters even in Missouri, Virginia and Tennessee, three right-leaning states.

In a compilation of more than 41,000 automated survey interviews conducted last week in competitive congressional districts from coast to coast, the nonpartisan Majority Watch project found that independents preferred Democratic candidates over Republicans by 52% to 39%.

Despite the national numbers, Mehlman said he believed that in districts with the largest percentages of independent voters, Republicans would survive because they had built strong personal ties to those constituents; he cited Reps. Nancy L. Johnson in Connecticut, E. Clay Shaw Jr. in Florida and Jim Gerlach in suburban Philadelphia.

But public surveys last week showed Johnson and Gerlach lagging among independents — and trailing their Democratic challengers. No new figures were available for Shaw.

In some key contests, the GOP base may be large enough to produce a thin majority even if independents break toward the Democrats. Races on that list could include the Senate contest in Tennessee, and conceivably in Missouri and Montana, as well as House races in districts that tilt heavily toward the GOP in states such as Kentucky and Nebraska.

Bush is focusing his final travel schedule on such places, with a message aimed at mobilizing Republicans through fierce attacks on Democrats on issues such as taxes, domestic security and Iraq.

Virginia Rep. Davis, the former GOP congressional campaign committee chairman, said the best news for his party in the final days before the election was that Bush's razor-edged message, combined with the controversy surrounding Kerry's recent remarks about the Iraq war, appeared to be energizing Republican base voters to turn out.

But in areas of the country with larger proportions of swing and independent voters, such as Connecticut, Ohio, and the suburbs of Philadelphia and Denver, Republican candidates face large deficits with those voters that will be difficult to overcome.

And in such places, Davis believes, Bush's rhetoric offers little help and may even prove counterproductive, by further antagonizing swing voters unhappy over Iraq and over Washington's intense partisanship.

Bush's closing argument "stops a total collapse," Davis said. "But it's not a strategy for keeping the House."

If Bush generates a surge of GOP turnout that enables Republicans to do better than expected Tuesday, his base-oriented approach could solidify its dominance in the party.

Big Democratic gains, on the other hand, would likely be prelude to the most open questioning of Bush's governing and political strategy that the president has faced since taking office.

"You want to be able to mobilize your base without alienating independents," said one senior House Republican, who asked for anonymity when expressing doubts about White House strategy. "We've been able to do the first; I'm not convinced we have been able to do the second. And that could be a very dangerous thing come Tuesday night.",0,44145,full.story?coll=la-home-headlines


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