By Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 11, 2006
Disaffection over spending and immigration have caused conservatives to take flight from President Bush and the Republican Congress at a rapid pace in recent weeks, sending Bush's approval ratings to record lows and presenting a new threat to the GOP's 12-year reign on Capitol Hill, according to White House officials, lawmakers and new polling data.
Bush and Congress have suffered a decline in support from almost every part of the conservative coalition over the past year, a trend that has accelerated with alarming implications for Bush's governing strategy.
The Gallup polling organization recorded a 13-percentage-point drop in Republican support for Bush in the past couple of weeks. These usually reliable voters are telling pollsters and lawmakers they are fed up with what they see as out-of-control spending by Washington and, more generally, an abandonment of core conservative principles.
There are also significant pockets of conservatives turning on Bush and Congress over their failure to tighten immigration laws, restrict same-sex marriage, and put an end to the Iraq war and the rash of political scandals, according to lawmakers and pollsters.
Bush won two presidential elections by pursuing a political and governing model that was predicated on winning and sustaining the loyal backing of social, economic and foreign policy conservatives. The strategy was based on the belief that conservatives, who are often more politically active than the general public, could be inspired to vote in larger numbers and would serve as a reliable foundation for his presidency. The theory, as explained by Bush strategists, is that the president would enjoy a floor below which his support would never fall.
It is now apparent that this floor has weakened dramatically -- and collapsed in places.
"A lot of us have been like Paul Revere and sounding the alarm for three or four years," said Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.). "Conservatives forgave Bush and Congress for our past mistakes because the war on terrorism was so important . . . but now there is a great deal of unhappiness. What you are going to increasingly see is a divided Republican Party."
Michael Franc, a top official at the Heritage Foundation, said his organization hosted 600 of its top conservative donors last week and heard more widespread complaining about Republicans than at any other point in the past 12 years. "It begins with spending, extends through immigration and results in a sense that we have Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee for the two parties," Franc said.
Ralph Sivillo, a 64-year-old retiree living in Monroe, N.Y., said he started turning against Bush in January. He said Democrats are beginning to look better to him. "I'm really dead against Bush at this point. What's he doing? He's doing nothing. Everybody's just bailing on him because they feel the same way."
"He's not well liked," said Douglas Giles, 47, a self-described conservative from Buffalo. "A lot of people don't think he's very good."
Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center, a leading polling group, said one of the most striking findings of recent surveys is the growing number of conservatives who "don't see Bush as one of them" as they did earlier. Pew found that Bush has suffered a 24-point drop in his approval rating among voters who backed him in 2004: from 92 percent in January 2005 to 68 percent in March.
Frank Newport of the Gallup Organization cautioned against reading too much into Bush's recent loss of support among conservatives. He said the numbers tend to ebb and flow and must be confirmed over several months before it is possible to conclude that the president has suffered irreversible erosion.
Moreover, the public's view of the economy and Washington may have been soured by gasoline prices having topped $3 a gallon over the past month.
But GOP lawmakers and strategists, who have reviewed a series of polls released in recent weeks, said the results confirm what they are hearing from voters: Conservatives are demoralized and defecting in worrisome numbers. The most recent Associated Press poll found that Bush had a 52 percent approval rating among conservatives; only 33 percent had a favorable opinion of the Republican-run Congress.
"The problem in my mind, and the only way to explain the very significant erosion is just a disgust with what appears to be a complete abandonment of limited government," said former Republican congressman Pat Toomey, who runs the conservative Club for Growth. Toomey said commitment to smaller government has been the unifying idea for most elements of the GOP coalition since Ronald Reagan's presidency. "Republicans have finally had enough," he said, a sentiment echoed by several other conservative activists and lawmakers.
Since Bush took office, government spending has increased by more than 25 percent, the largest increase under any president since Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson. At the same time, Bush and the Republican Congress dramatically increased the government's role in, and overall spending on, education and Medicare by enacting the No Child Left Behind Act and new prescription drug entitlement for seniors. David A. Keene, head of the American Conservative Union, said there is a sense of flaccid leadership at the White House and in Congress that begets "things like frustration, which leads to disgust and apathy" among conservatives.
The immigration debate appears to be damaging Bush and GOP lawmakers, too. Conservative voters are saying they want swift congressional action to secure the border and enforce immigrations laws, but Bush and Congress are split over the best way to deal with illegal immigrants already in the country.
A new Zogby Interactive poll found that fewer than 25 percent of respondents who described themselves as conservative or very conservative approved of Bush's handling of the immigration debate. "Unfortunately, when it comes to controlling our borders, we are about a decade behind where we need to be," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.).
Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, and GOP leaders are well aware of the problem and are planning a summer offensive to win back conservatives with a mix of policy fights and warnings of how a Democratic Congress would govern. The plan includes votes on tax cuts, a constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage, new abortion restrictions, and measures to restrain government spending.
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane and political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.