Great defection: A Pa. survey brings sobering news to Republicans

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After its dramatic electoral losses, including the White House, the Republican Party has been doing some soul-searching. But those who conclude that being more conservative is the way back to power should take a survey from Pennsylvania as a caution.

Muhlenberg College's Institute of Public Opinion recently looked at Pennsylvania Republican voters who changed their registration status to Democrat. The results ought to make party loyalists fearful.

The swing to the Democrats has been dramatic. In May 2006, Democratic voters outnumbered Republicans by 550,000 statewide. Two and half years later, that number had more than doubled to 1.2 million. Little wonder that Barack Obama won the state handily in November.

The news for Republicans is worse the deeper one goes into the findings. It's the moderates and liberals who fled the party -- almost two out of three voters who abandoned the GOP for the Democrats identified themselves in those terms. Fully 53 percent who left strongly agreed that the GOP had become too extreme in its positions.

As the survey discovered, the GOP defectors tend to be well-educated (49 percent have at least a college degree), more affluent (51 percent make more than $60,000 a year) and out of step with the party on the abortion issue (67 percent are pro-choice).

The major factors causing defections were the presidency of George W. Bush (68 percent) and the war in Iraq (54 percent). With Mr. Bush in retirement and the Iraq war winding down, it might seem that the worst is over. But even here the findings invite pessimism. Most of those who switched to Democrat had been Republicans for 20 years or more, and most of the defectors indicated they are not likely to change back in the next five years.

These results ought to be depressing not only for Republicans but also anyone who cares about the health of the two-party system. In living memory, the Republican Party in Pennsylvania had moderate legislators in the mold of Sen. John Heinz who appealed to a broad cross-section of voters.

Now the GOP tent is becoming smaller. At this rate, that tent will soon be housing a permanent minority.


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