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The Real Threat to McCain?

A Commentary by Alan I. Abramowitz

A lot of Republicans are unhappy with their party this year. Some conservative Republicans, following the lead of talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, have been threatening to sit out the November election or vote for a third party candidate because they don't consider their party's presidential nominee, John McCain, to be sufficiently conservative.

Since emerging as the clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination on Super Tuesday, Mr. McCain has been working hard to win the support of conservatives by stressing his hawkish views on Iraq and his conservative positions on social issues such as abortion. In a further effort to ease the concerns of conservatives, McCain recently promised to oppose any tax increases during his term as president.

But a careful examination of the evidence from the 2006 midterm elections as well as voting patterns in recent primaries indicates that it isn't conservatives who pose the biggest threat to Republican unity in the fall. It's moderate-to-liberal Republicans who represent the biggest challenge to John McCain in uniting his party against the Democratic nominee, especially if that nominee is Barack Obama.

While conservatives may continue to complain about McCain, they will almost certainly end up voting for him against a much more liberal Democrat. But a large number of moderate-to-liberal Republicans could actually defect to the Democratic nominee if they perceive McCain as moving too far to the right in his effort to appease party conservatives.

In the 2006 midterm elections, defections by moderate-to-liberal Republicans contributed to the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives and were largely responsible for Republican defeats in three major Senate races in states that had voted for George Bush by wide margins in 2004: Missouri, Montana and Virginia.

According to national exit poll data, 14 percent of moderate-to-liberal Republicans in districts with competitive House races voted for Democratic candidates. This was more than four times the three percent defection rate among conservative Republicans in these districts. And defections by moderate-to-liberal Republicans played a crucial role in narrow Democratic victories in those key contests (MO, MT and VA) that enabled Democrats to seize control of the Senate in 2007. According to the exit polls in these states, the defection rate among moderate-to-liberal Republicans was13 percent in Virginia, 16 percent in Missouri and 17 percent in Montana. In contrast, the defection rate among conservative Republicans was only 3 percent in Virginia, 2 percent in Missouri and 7 percent in Montana.

The reason that moderate-to-liberal Republicans defected to the Democrats at such a higher rate than conservative Republicans was that they were much more dissatisfied with the performance of President Bush in general and with the war in Iraq in particular. According to the 2006 national exit poll, 25 percent of moderate-to-liberal Republicans disapproved of President Bush's job performance and 31 percent disapproved of the war in Iraq. In contrast, only nine percent of conservative Republicans disapproved of Mr. Bush's job performance and only 13 percent disapproved of the war in Iraq.

These results suggest that John McCain's efforts to woo GOP conservatives by stressing his support for the war and his determination to continue President Bush's policies if he is elected are likely to cost him support among moderate-to-liberal Republicans in November. Further evidence of this danger to Mr. McCain can be seen in turnout patterns in some recent presidential primaries.

Turnout in the Democratic presidential primaries this year has greatly exceeded turnout in Republican presidential primaries. Moreover, evidence from exit polls indicates that in states with open primary laws that make it easy for voters to cross party lines, a good many Republicans have been casting ballots in Democratic primaries. Evidence of this can be seen in two states with open primary laws that held their presidential primaries in February: Virginia and Wisconsin.

Based on the overall turnout in the Democratic and Republican primaries in these states and estimates from the exit polls of the size of the crossover vote in each party's primary, we can calculate that about 16 percent of Republican voters in Virginia and 25 percent of Republican voters in Wisconsin cast their ballots in the Democratic primary. In contrast, only 2 percent of Democratic voters in Virginia and 3 percent of Democratic voters in Wisconsin cast their ballots in the Republican primary.

Both Virginia and Wisconsin are likely to be battleground states in the November election. The fact that one seventh of Republican voters in Virginia and one fourth of Republican voters in Wisconsin chose to participate in the Democratic primary should be a clear warning signal to the McCain campaign, especially if Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee. According to the exit polls, 72 percent of Republicans who voted in these Democratic primaries cast their ballots for Obama. Obama's ability to lure large numbers Republican crossover voters in these Democratic primaries indicates that there could be a high rate of defection to Obama among moderate-to-liberal Republicans in the November election, especially if John McCain continues to focus on shoring up his support among GOP conservatives.

Alan Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University, Alan is the author of Voice of the People: Elections and Voting Behavior in the United States.


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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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