Survey: Republicans estranged by war, Bush years defect to Democratic Party

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Recent Republican losses in Pennsylvania have been spurred by defections from among the party's more affluent and better-educated voters.

One of the strongest recent currents in Pennsylvania politics has been a shift of registered voters from the Republican to the Democratic Party. A new survey suggests that this change has been led disproportionately by some of the GOP's more upscale members, estranged by the Bush administration and the unpopular war in Iraq.

Muhlenberg College's Institute of Public Opinion looked at a sample of the hundreds of thousands of former Republicans who have swelled the ranks of Democrats over the last two federal election cycles.

In May 2006, just months before an election in which the GOP lost four House seats along with Rick Santorum's Senate seat, Democrats held a registration lead of roughly 550,000. By last November, as President Barack Obama was carrying the state by the widest margin of any White House contender in decades, the Democratic advantage had grown to 1.2 million voters.

The Democratic registration tide was swelled by the unprecedented grass-roots organization put together by the Obama campaign. But the Muhlenberg findings suggest that it also reflected a longer-term reaction against Republican policies.

A majority, 53 percent, of those who left the GOP had been members of the party for at least 20 years. Most described themselves as moderate, 37 percent, or liberal, 27 percent -- an obvious contrast to a party overwhelmingly composed of voters who describe themselves as conservative.

A strong majority of the switchers, 67 percent, also described themselves as in favor of abortion rights.

They also were more likely to characterize their decision to leave the GOP as the result of changes in the party's positions, rather than changes in their own political views -- 37 percent to 21 percent. By a wide margin, 67 percent, the respondents cited former President Bush as a "very important" catalyst for their decision to leave the party. Fifty-four percent cited the Iraq war. When asked to agree or disagree with a series of statements about the GOP, 53 percent said the party had "become too extreme in its positions."

Forty-six percent said they were closer to the Democratic Party on taxes, and 38 percent said they were closer to the Democratic Party's position on issues such as gay marriage and abortion and roughly a third agreed with the statement, "The influence of the religious right on the Republican Party's social positions led me to leave the party."

Of those who made that ideological journey, 25 percent said their incomes exceeded $100,000 and another 26 percent said they made between $60,000 and $100,000. Just 26 percent said they made less than $40,000.

Twenty-four percent said they had a graduate degree, 25 percent had graduated from college, and another 29 percent said they had at least some post-high school education.

Chris Borick, the Muhlenberg political scientist who directed the survey, said that, "Among the troubling signs [for the state GOP] is that you're losing pretty long-term loyal Republicans. They're suburban, like those around Philadelphia. They're better educated, wealthier individuals.''

Only 22 percent of the former Republicans said they were likely to change their registration again in the next five years. But Mr. Borick pointed out that some of the bigger influences prompting the shifts -- the Iraq war and the Bush presidency -- now present lower profiles on the political horizon.

"That poses some opportunities," he said. But he added that, for many of the former party members, "There are more systemic issues -- a lot of these people are the moderates and the more liberal Republicans."


James O'Toole can be reached at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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