Profile of a Changing Party: New Face of Republicanism

It read like a recipe for unity. Evangelicals and libertarians, tax-cutters and deficit hawks, free-traders and Buchananite protectionists.

As they convene this week, Republicans are searching for a realignment. Not only do they hope to win back the White House, they are trying to successfully defend a majority in Congress for the first time since the 1920s.

If they do, they will win on the back of a remarkable assembly of opposing groups. Divided for decades along the relatively simple lines of Eastern liberals and Midwestern conservatives, the party that Ronald Reagan built is a complex coalition of factions united by a common thread: suspicion of the federal government.

"Any constituency that has a gripe with the federal government fits into the Republican Party," says William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

Discontent with government has proved to be one of the most potent forces in electoral politics for 30 years, helping to precipitate the rise or fall of a party's dominance and redrawing the traditional lines of affiliation between voting groups. The political landscape has undergone dramatic shifts based on religion, race, gender, geography, and economic security.

Despite the movement, the public remains about evenly divided among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. Even so, since the end of Lyndon Johnson's reign, Republicans have usually been the beneficiaries of the most important of those voter shifts.

Consider geography. Democrats once controlled the vital South and "rust-belt" states, but the 1994 midterm elections saw the culmination of an important political shift: Republicans won a majority of House seats in Dixie. Republicans are now more likely to live in the South, key Midwestern states such as Ohio and Michigan, and the Mountain states. Democrats are now more apt to live in the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest.

Another important electoral change involves religion. When Franklin Roosevelt launched the New Deal in the 1930s, southern religious conservatives, to the extent they identified with politics, were largely in the Democratic camp. But as the party moved more into liberal causes in the 1960s and 1970s, it lost much of this constituency.

Mr. Reagan sealed a two-decade-long shift in this vote in 1980, winning three-fifths of the vote in the most concentrated Baptist counties in the country against a born-again Christian, Jimmy Carter. The religious right has been in the GOP camp ever since, and is today its most formidable constituency.

But that is only part of the story. As the conservative evangelicals have risen in influence on the GOP side, dramatic changes are also taking place among the Roman Catholic and mainstream Protestant votes. These Protestants, once the largest religious community in the country and strongly Republican, have shrunk to one-fifth of the electorate. Meanwhile, Catholics, a quarter of the voting population and for decades a bedrock Democratic constituency, have become perhaps the most important swing vote. "Once, mainline Protestants were the backbone of the Republican Party," says Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster in Atlanta. "Today, evangelicals and Baptists have the greater presence."

There are several other differences between Republican and Democratic voting groups. Based on a recent survey by Wirthlin Worldwide, a Virginia-based GOP polling firm, people making more than $50,000 a year tend to be Republican. Those making less than $15,000 tend to be Democrats.

In 1980, more women identified themselves as Republicans. Now 43 percent of men side with the GOP, while 47 percent of women side with the Democrats. The gender gap widens when men and women are offered the choice between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. Marriage influences the women's vote, too. The Wirthlin survey found that single women who work are the strongest Democratic constituency, while married women with children are more often Republican.

Younger voters who grew up in the Reagan years are more apt to be Republicans than are voters over 55. As for race, 72 percent of blacks said they were Democrats versus 38 percent of whites. Overall, 57 percent of those polled said they were conservative.

A GOP realignment, which analysts say hinges on the party retaining control of Congress, will depend in large part on the blue-collar middle class and the Perot vote. Yet they must also keep the religious right, without alienating other groups. "The Republicans should get a chunk of the Perot vote - young, antiestablishment, men," says GOP pollster Linda DiVall. "They have traditionally been part of the GOP coalition. But the party has to hold the evangelical vote in line."

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