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Evans

The Bush Electoral Legacy

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
May 16, 2008

George Bush came into office with the hope of making the Republican Party the party of government for a generation. However, Bush will leave office with the Republican Party in its worst shape since Watergate and possibly since the Great Depression.

In the short term, Bush has damaged the public’s perception of the Republican Party. Whether it is due to incompetence in Iraq, a struggling economy, increased government spending, the inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina, high oil prices, and/or potential violations of civil liberties in the war on terror, the public has soured on George Bush.

In fact, a recent New York Times/CBS poll finds that 71% of the public disapproves of Bush’s handling of the presidency. That is a greater number than disapproved of Richard Nixon at the height of Watergate. Moreover, Bush’s approval has been under 40% for two-and-a-half years, the longest period of low approval in polling history. As the titular leader of the Republican Party, the cumulative effect of Bush’s problems weighs down the entire party. Currently, only 33% of voters are favorable toward the GOP while 52% of the public is favorable toward the Democratic Party. And a Washington Post poll found the public favors Democrats over Republicans on every single issue, including the Republicans’ signature issue of taxes.

No wonder that Congressman Tom Davis (R-VA), the former chair of the House Republican campaign committee, says, “The Republican brand is so bad right now that if it were a dog food, they'd take it off the shelf."

More troubling, fewer voters are identifying with the Republican Party. Comparing two NBC/Wall Street Journal polls, the number of voters who claim to be Democrat and Republican has gone from a statistical tie of 29%-28% in 2004 to a 34%-24% advantage for Democrats in 2008. If we include independents who lean to either party, the Democratic advantage is 46%-33%. If true independents split 50-50 in the November elections, the Democratic nominee potentially wins a landslide victory. Thankfully for Republicans, voters consider more than party identification but the political environment clearly favors Democrats.

Even if John McCain wins, prospects are not bright for congressional Republicans. Seeing a toxic political environment, 26 House Republicans are retiring to avoid difficult elections or because they see Republicans remaining in the minority for the near future. Many of these represent Democratic leaning or marginal districts that are likely to go Democratic especially since Democrats have recruited better candidates who are out-fundraising their Republican opponents. In the Senate, Congressional Quarterly only rates one Democratic seat as competitive compared to eight Republican seats putting Democrats closer to the 60 seats needed to end filibusters.

The bad news continues at the state level. Democrats hope for gains in state legislatures that will increase their ability to consolidate and increase Democratic gains when they redraw congressional and state legislative districts after the 2010 census.

As dire as this sounds, the long term effects may be even greater. While many voters will return to Republican ranks once Bush leaves office making the party competitive in the near future, a successful Democratic Administration may convince voters to remain independent or move toward the Democratic Party.

Just as important, more young voters are identifying themselves as Democrats. Because the young have weak partisan ties, the political climate at the time they reach adulthood influences their party affiliation. Due to the disenchantment with Bush, the Pew Research Center finds that 50% of young people between 18 and 29 claim Democratic party identification compared to 33% who claim Republican party identification. This compares to a Democratic advantage of 51%-44% in 1996 and 51%-40% in 2004.

In time, the Democrats will reap the rewards as older, more Republican voters are replaced by more Democratic leaning voters. Moreover, many believe that the young will not change their party identification as they age. Already, professionals and women are supporting Democrats more because of their stands on quality of life issues such as education, health care, and the environment while young people, in general, prefer the Democrats more libertine stands on social issues.

While things look bad for Republicans, things can improve. A Democratic victory in November makes the economy and Iraq the Democrat’s responsibility. If the Democrats cannot deliver or pursue extremely liberal policies, the Republicans can more easily recover. However, if the Democrats pursue moderate policies that stabilize Iraq and improve the economy, voters may continue to identify Republicans with Bush making him the Republican Party’s modern day Herbert Hoover.

Article originally appeared in The Jackson Sun on May 9, 2008