For Democrats, a Troubling Culture Gap

By Dan Balz
Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Dissatisfaction over the war in Iraq, the economy and rising health care costs might spell trouble for Republicans, but a study by Democratic strategists warns that their party's failure to connect with voters on cultural issues could prevent Democratic candidates from reaping gains in upcoming national elections.

Democrats have expressed bewilderment over Republican gains among lower-income, less-educated voters, saying they are voting against their economic self-interest by supporting Republican candidates. But the new Democracy Corps study concludes that cultural issues trump economic issues by a wide margin for many of these voters -- giving the GOP a significant electoral advantage.

The study is based on focus groups of rural voters in Wisconsin and Arkansas and disaffected supporters of President Bush in Colorado and Kentucky. The good news for Democrats: All the groups expressed dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and with the leadership of the president and the GOP-controlled Congress.

Then came the bad news: "As powerful as the concern over these issues is, the introduction of cultural themes -- specifically gay marriage, abortion, the importance of the traditional family unit and the role of religion in public life -- quickly renders them almost irrelevant in terms of electoral politics at the national level," the study said.

Many of these voters still favor Democrats on economic issues. But they see the Democrats as weak on national security, and on cultural and moral issues, they view Democrats as both inconsistent and hostile to traditional values. "Most referred to Democrats as 'liberal' on issues of morality, but some even go so far as to label them 'immoral,' 'morally bankrupt,' or even 'anti-religious,' " according to the Democracy Corps analysis.

Democrats Karl Agne and Stan Greenberg, who conducted the focus group, said Democrats need a reform-oriented, anti-Washington agenda to overcome the culture gap. At this point, Democrats are in no position to capitalize if there is a clear backlash against Republicans. "No matter how disaffected they are over Republican failures in Iraq and here at home," they said, "a large chunk of white, non-college voters, particularly in rural areas, will remain unreachable for Democrats at the national level."

Rep. Harris in Senate Race

Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.), whose role in the presidential recount in 2000 made her one of the most reviled and revered Republicans in the country, formally launched her campaign for the Senate yesterday, hoping to unseat Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).

Republicans believe Nelson can be beaten in 2006, but many of them do not think Harris, given her actions when she was Florida secretary of state, is the candidate to do it. Both the White House and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) tried to encourage Florida House Speaker Allan Bense to seek the GOP nomination, but last week he said he preferred to stay focused on state legislative business.

Harris still rankles over the coverage she received during the Florida recount, telling radio talk show host Sean Hannity recently that she found attention to her hair and makeup "personally painful." She blamed the problem on manipulation of her photos. "Whenever they made fun of my makeup," she said, "it was because the newspapers colorized my photograph."

Early polls show Nelson leading Harris, but Democrats expect a competitive race.

Bloomberg Cruising

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R) continues to cruise toward reelection in November, with half of the voters in the heavily Democratic city saying he deserves reelection and a majority saying he is doing a good job as the successor to former mayor Rudy Giuliani.

A new Marist poll shows Bloomberg with double-digit leads over potential Democratic challengers. Even among Democratic voters, the mayor runs roughly even with all of those possible challengers. Party loyalty appears to be a non-factor in the mayoral race: 62 percent of those surveyed said it does not matter whether the mayor is a Republican or a Democrat.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company