McCain Democrats? Putting a Survey in Historical Context
By Jon Cohen
Democrats afraid their party will suffer from the extended primary battle point to new polls showing sizable numbers of Democrats ready to bolt to Arizona Sen. John McCain should their top choice not win the nomination.
Those data are stark, but context is also important.
A slew of recent national polls report Democratic "defection rates" ranging from 18 to 35 percent, depending on the candidate. If the numbers held in November, it would be a big turnabout from recent elections.
In the last four presidential contests, only about one in 10 Democrats cast ballots for the GOP candidate, according to network exit polls. In the 2006 midterm election, 93 percent of Democrats cast ballots for the Democratic contender in their House district.
But other new data may also concern some Democrats. In today's Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, Hillary Clinton's ratings have dipped among all voters, African Americans and women. (Bill Clinton's ratings have also dropped among African Americans in WSJ-NBC polling from 76 percent last November to 60 percent now.)
And in the new poll from the Pew Research Center, Obama's "unfavorability" rating among Clinton supporters continued to rise. More than four in 10 of those backing Clinton in the primary had negative views of Obama -- a number that's up sharply over the past few months. Obama voters, in turn, now view Clinton more negatively than they did before Super Tuesday.
So far, the bad feelings have not spilled over into hypothetical match-ups between Clinton or Obama with McCain. In both the Pew and WSJ-NBC polls, those head-to-heads are little changed from previous surveys. And Democrats currently enjoy a large advantage in partisan identification.
While Democratic defections have been low for a long time, they were higher in earlier races, with 26 percent of Democrats voting for Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Those voters crossed party lines that year after a bruising fight for the Democratic nomination between President Carter and Sen. Edward Kennedy (a battle that lasted all the way to the convention). But there no evidence that Kennedy voters were more likely than others to jump ship: those who supported Kennedy in the primary were no more apt to vote for Reagan (24 percent) than were those who did not back the Massachusetts senator (26 percent), according to the CBS News-New York Times exit poll.
And Kennedy supporters also turned out to be less likely to cross over the partisan divide than they had indicated earlier in the year. In a late March 1980 Gallup poll, nearly half, 47 percent, of Democrats who wanted Kennedy to be the party's nominee said they would vote for Reagan if Carter were to get the nod; that is nearly twice the proportion who ended up doing so.
Vote among Democrats in presidential elections (network exit polls):
Democrat Republican Ind/Other 1972 61 37 2 1976 77 22 1 1980 67 26 7 1984 74 25 1 1988 82 17 1 1992 77 10 13 1996 84 10 5 2000 86 11 2 2004 89 11 *
Vote among Democrats in presidential elections (percent of two-party vote, from network exit polls):
Democrat Republican 1972 62 38 1976 78 22 1980 72 28 1984 75 25 1988 83 17 1992 89 11 1996 89 11 2000 88 12 2004 89 11
Posted at 6:05 PM ET on Mar 27, 2008
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