Mulling the Muhlenberg message

Published in an obscure but distinguished online journal, Survey Practice, this little study examines why Republicans in Pennsylvania have left the party to re-register as Democrats. It provides a descriptive demographic profile of the party-switchers and considers the likelihood that they will return home to the GOP. Small, targeted case studies like this are invaluable. There is almost never party or campaign committee funding for this sort of exploratory effort. Party bosses and candidates aren’t inclined to ponder topics beyond the top issues, candidate name IDs and trial-heat ballots. So if academics like Borick don’t come along, these studies are rare.

This research is particularly fascinating because it looks at voters who changed their registration in 2007 and 2008, before Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) made his own party switch. Altogether, 400 voters were interviewed by telephone. (I am obligated to reveal that the interviews were conducted in 2008, more than a year ago; such is the nature of academia, where data languish for a year being written up and peer-reviewed before seeing the light of day.)

As you might anticipate, the Republican switchers are more moderate than are all Pennsylvania Republicans. But the magnitude of the difference is not what you might expect. Fully one-fourth (26 percent) of the switchers are self-described conservatives and only a few more, 27 percent, think of themselves as liberals. Over one-third (37 percent) of the GOP switchers are self-described moderates, and another 8 percent weren’t sure of their ideology. All things considered, it’s tough to conclude from these data alone that the Republicans are “too conservative” and are driving voters away, into the arms of the Democrats.

A tantalizing insight on switching is gleaned from a question the professor asked about past switches. It seems that more than four in 10 switchers who had been in the GOP 10 years or less had previously changed parties. This means that some of the recent party-switchers may have simply been “going home” to the Democrats. The fact that there are so many floating partisans again undermines the broad notion that Republicans are driving hordes of life-loyal members from their ranks.

When asked directly about reasons for their change of registration, just 53 percent said it was because of extremism in the party’s positions. I say “just” 53 percent because I would venture that most pundits would guesstimate higher. That number is too high, to be sure, and it is a sign that moderating some policy stances would benefit the party. But that almost one-half don’t feel ideology was a factor in their switch suggests the problem is deeper and more complex than something the party platform committee can fix.

Perhaps the most useful takeaway for Republican strategists is that switchers have higher socioeconomic status than those who stay behind. If for no other reason than fundraising, Republicans might want to stem the tide of defections. Over one-third (37 percent) of the Pennsylvania Republicans who switched to Democrat registration have annual incomes in excess of $80,000. Only 19 percent of all Republicans exceed this financial threshold. I recognize that less affluent donors are often better donors, but losing so many potential high-end donors can’t be good for business.

Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.