Outsiders: Voting across party lines

By Shelbi Thomas
Iowa Presidential Politics.com

The road to the White House begins with building support among political activists for the caucuses and primaries, but some presidential candidates are already trying to win the backing of voters outside their parties for the general election.

As the margin between those who identify themselves as Republicans and Democrats closes, candidates such as Wesley Clark, Howard Dean and George W. Bush are trying to appeal to independents and moderates who vote across party lines, recognizing their increasingly crucial role in the voting process.

“When this happens on a large scale, it can change the dynamics of the political system,” said Arthur Sanders, an associate professor of politics and international relations at Drake University. “I don’t think at this point there’s much evidence of a monumental election, but it could make a difference in the elections.”

Karen Brunso is a registered Republican, but in January, she will change her registration to support a Democrat in the Iowa caucuses. After hearing Clark speak at the University of Iowa in September, the college freshman joined the Students for Clark organization on campus, serving as vice president and encouraging others to caucus for the Arkansas native.

“Clark always talks about how we don’t need to be partisan, but we need to open up the door of communication,” she said. “It’s different, and it’s something I wish to see tried and actually take a chance at, something to try for a change.”

Brunso said her switch to a Democratic registration will be temporary but was prompted by disappointment in President Bush’s performance with the economy, international relations and the war in Iraq.

“There are a lot of Republicans like me who are sick and tired of their president and want to change, and Clark has offered them an option to get that change that they want,” she said.

Brunso said she was impressed with Clark’s military experience as a former four-star general and his educational background as a Rhodes Scholar and Oxford graduate with a master’s degree in philosophy, politics and economics.

Although Brunso has followed the other Democrats’ campaigns closely, the self-proclaimed liberal Republican said her vote would go to a Democrat only if Clark were the party’s nominee.

“They’re all too partisan, and I just haven’t found one that’s spoken to me quite like Clark has. So I’ll probably just vote for Bush if worse comes to worse, which I don’t think will happen,” she said. “I think the nation will see who Clark is and nominate him as a contender for the president, and then he’ll win.”

Brunso may be a Republican voting Democrat this election, but Kristin Scuderi, communications director for the Republican Party of Iowa, said there are also plenty of Democrats who are voting Republican in 2004.

“You tend to see people, especially in the Midwest and in Iowa, turned off by negative campaigns and mudslinging. A lot of Democrats are voting Republican, because the Democrats’ messages are negative and promoting pessimism, especially toward President Bush,” she said. “Voters will look elsewhere, and we hope to get some Democrats’ votes.”

Scuderi said that a key example of a Democrat voting Republican in the next election is Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, a prominent conservative Democrat, who announced in October that he would be willing to endorse and campaign for Bush in 2004 if asked. Though it is unlikely Miller will change his party affiliation as a lifelong Democrat, Scuderi said it will be the first time he has ever voted for a Republican.

“Democrats are voting for President Bush, mainly because of the war,” Scuderi said. “It feels like a time in our history where we need a strong leader, and it doesn’t feel like any of the Democrats are able to do it.”

Professor Sanders said that although candidates want their support base to be as broad as possible in the general election, its helpfulness in the primaries and caucuses will depend on where the candidate positions himself or herself.

Clark, who has voted for former Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and Dean, who is fiscally conservative, both have places on their Web site for their GOP supporters. Likewise, President Bush has a Democrats for Bush organization to build bipartisan support.

“It’s not always a helpful tactic. Like for [Dick] Gephardt, who is a dominant hardcore traditional Democrat, to win, he must mobilize those constituents,” Sanders said. “Dean and Clark are running as outsiders, so it would make more sense for them to have a different appeal.”

Sanders said that occasionally these shifts in party support have enormous effects on the political system, as happened in 1896, when many switched over to the Republican Party, and 1932, when many became Democrats. More recently, Democrat Lyndon Johnson was able to appeal to Republicans in the northeastern United States, and Republican Ronald Reagan attracted many working-class union members who were conservative on social issues, known as the “Reagan Democrats.”

Robert Lowry, an associate professor of political science at Iowa State, said changing party registration or voting against one’s party affiliation is less likely to happen in the upcoming election.

“Both Democrats and Republicans are more ideologically split than they’ve been in the past. They are trying to appeal to the base, rather than the swing voters,” he said.

Lowry said it is more likely for Democrats to switch party identities than for Republicans because though more voters have been registered as Democrats historically, Republicans have been winning more elections.

Sanders said the party outside the White House has the disadvantage of having more internal struggles, which may take away votes.

“Whatever party is in control of the presidency is less likely to have internal problems, because there is a centralizing clear leader of the party. So the internal differences are papered over, and it becomes the party’s position wherever the president is,” he said. “The out party is fighting over who will become the dominant wing.”

E-mail Shelbi Thomas at [email protected]

This story was published in the Sac (City, IA) Sun on December 9, 2003

Copyright © 2003 by Iowa Presidential Politics.com. This site produced by the "Presidential Politics" class in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa.