Wavering Republicans

Party faithful are upset with Bush, but a Clinton nomination may bring them together.

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Last Thursday I attended a focus group of Republican voters in suburban Richmond, Va., moderated by Democrat Peter Hart for the Annenberg Center for School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. Readers may want to know that I worked for Peter Hart from 1974 to 1981, and we have remained friends ever since. Peter is very skillful at conducting focus groups and eliciting participants' opinions without leading them in one direction or another. I thought this was a particularly good focus group. Usually among a dozen people you have two or three who don't have much to say, and sometimes you have one or two who try to hijack the whole group and send it off in their direction.

There was none of that here: Each participant had interesting things to say. Carl Leubsdorf gives a good account of the proceedings in the Dallas Morning News.

I'd like to offer more in the way of general impressions.

First, these voters are anything but firmly anchored in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. They tend to see Rudy Giuliani as a "stronger leader," but some are troubled with his stands on cultural issues (they identified him as supporting abortion and, incorrectly, same-sex marriage). They tend to see Fred Thompson as culturally sympathetic and right on the issues, but they admit they don't know a whole lot about him. Some see Mitt Romney as able, but many are put off by his Mormon religion. "I hate to oppose anyone because of his religion," two said, and then did just that; a few minutes later, prompted by one participant who said she wasn't concerned about the candidates' religion, they downplayed their fears. If anything, there was more concern expressed about Romney's Mormonism than Giuliani's position on abortion, though in both cases some participants' apprehension seemed quickly allayed.

Conclusion: These voters are anything but firmly committed. The polling numbers in the Republican race have been moving around somewhat, but if anything they understate the fluidity of this race.

Second, these Republicans were pessimistic about the future and said their children would live in worse times than they have. I'm astonished by this pessimism, for which I can see little supporting evidence. The American economy continues to have low-inflation economic growth, as it has for 95 percent of the time over the past 25 years—a record that should command some respect. Instead, it seems to represent a default condition for which policymakers or participants in the marketplace are given no credit. These voters complained about gas prices, housing prices (though lower prices will make it easier for their first-time-buying children to buy) and financing, possible recession, and so on. But even toting up all these negative economic effects, you don't come up with a future where their children are economically worse off.

I ascribe some of it to disappointment with George W. Bush. All 12 of these people voted for him in both 2000 and 2004; they continue to regard him as a man who shares their moral values and Christian background (it was taken for granted that Christian values are an asset, though this area is represented in the U.S. House by Eric Cantor, a Republican who is Jewish). They give him credit for steadfastness but also debit him for stubbornness ("his strength is his weakness," one said). They are not looking for a Bush clone, either on issues (see the next paragraph) or in character.

Third, many of these voters raised the issue of illegal immigration and were genuinely outraged by the large number of illegals in the United States and by weak enforcement (or nonenforcement) of the law at the border and at workplaces. There was some clear condemnation of Bush here. At the same time, there was nothing to indicate that these attitudes were motivated by a dislike or prejudice against Latinos; to the contrary, one or two participants pointed out that illegal immigrants were hard workers.

Fourth, three of these voters brought up the environment as an issue, and one mentioned global warming. This was more than I think you would have heard from Republican voters four or eight years ago.

Fifth, these voters were solidly arrayed against Hillary Clinton and also against her leading Democratic competitors Barack Obama and John Edwards. Indeed, they showed considerably more unambivalent vehemence in opposing Clinton than they showed in expressing support for any of the Republican candidates. So far during this cycle we have seen that the Democratic candidates are raising more money, generating more volunteers, getting more press coverage (of course, that reflects the press's biases to at least some extent)—all signs that the balance of enthusiasm favors the Democrats more next fall than it did the Republicans in 2004. The vehemence of these Republicans' opposition to Clinton suggests there's at least a possibility that enthusiasm on the Republican side may increase if and when she clinches the Democratic nomination (which could be as early as the evening of January 8 if New Hampshire schedules its primary for that day and Clinton wins there and in Iowa, whose primary is slated for January 3.) and when the Republicans settle on a nominee.

I've written that we have entered a period of open-field politics, and the race for the Republican nomination sure looks like an open-field contest now. That conclusion, drawn from the primary numbers, was strengthened by listening to this Richmond focus group.

Footnote: Here's some interesting commentary on Mitt Romney's campaign from Matthew Continetti's Campaign Standard blog's pseudonymous old timer Richelieu:

Romney got off track early in his campaign, when he tried to exploit the "pure conservative" space left open when former Beltway-buzz-king George Allen's presidential aspirations collapsed. The purist position never fit Romney's eclectic flavor of conservatism and served instead to raise questions about what he really believes. It was a fumble, and Romney has paid a big price. Now the campaign has begun to focus on selling a more authentic Romney; the Mr. Fixit-wizard who saved the 2002 Olympics, made zillions in business, and shook up a Democratic state.

The Richmond focus group participants seemed to have little awareness of this aspect of Romney's background.