Whatever happened to the conservative tide?
(Page 2 of 2)
How to respond to the desire for change and yet keep voters in the GOP column is the challenge confronting Republicans this year.Skip to next paragraph
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Party officials are encouraged by registration figures showing that the Democrats have lost ground, especially in Southern states where race is a dominant factor.
According to the Washington-based National Journal, Democratic registration in Florida has dropped 100,000 since 1984 while Republican registration has risen by almost 500,000. The Democrats still lead in Florida, where the voting-age population has grown significantly, but the lead has narrowed.
Figures for Louisiana and North Carolina show similar gains for the GOP. And in California Republican registrations are up 3 percent while Democratic registrations have dropped 2.4 percent since 1984 (though Democrats are still in the majority).
Not all states register voters by party, however, and registrations do not necessarily translate into voter turnout. A more meaningful measure of potential strength at the polls is party identification: whether voters consider themselves Republican, Democratic, or independent. By this measure, the Republican Party appears to be losing ground.
``Since '84 there has been incremental bleeding,'' says Mr. Petrocik. ``The Republican Party has gone through bad times - the Nicaraguan and Iran-contra affair did us no good.''
Identification of voters with the GOP, especially among lower-income voters, has fallen since '84 and '86, Petrocik says. The so-called ``dealignment'' of the parties, or the growth of independents, is also over.
Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., chairman of the Republican National Committee, maintains that the two parties are now roughly equal and that a realignment of the parties has taken place.
While the Iran-contra scandal eroded GOP support, he says, the Republicans have again closed the gap to within 6 or 7 points of the Democrats. Young people, he adds, continue to move into Republican ranks.
``Fundamentally we're at parity,'' Mr. Fahrenkopf says. ``And we're out-registering the Democrats 2 to 1 among young voters.''
The latest Gallup poll, however, shows the Democratic Party leading the Republicans by 43 percent to 29 percent, a 14-point spread. The narrowing that took place in 1984 following the Reagan election victory has ended.
Election analysts also note that while the Republicans have scored consistent gains at the presidential level, the party has not expanded its base. In 1986 the Democrats regained the Senate and they still control the House.
``This is not an ideological realignment,'' says Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. ``The natural forces pent up in the South are now playing themselves out in the two-party system, with blacks moving into the Democratic Party.
Whatever their nominal party affiliations, Americans today are less party-oriented and increasingly willing to split their ticket. The advent of the primaries, the end of the system of dispensing patronage through the parties, and the television revolution have served to weaken the parties and party loyalties.
``What really has happened is `unalignment,''' says election expert Richard Scammon. ``Many people - labor, for instance - have remained nominal Democrats but are willing to cut the ticket.''