Democratic Tide on The Rise

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, June 13, 2008

At the moment, Barack Obama is winning a smaller share of Democrats than John Kerry did on Election Day four years ago. Yet Obama is beating John McCain by six points in the latest Gallup Poll. How can this be?

For all the talk this year about bipartisanship, a sharp shift in partisan loyalties toward the Democrats, visible in a series of polls this week, could prove the defining fact in November.

In a report released yesterday, Gallup found that where McCain was winning 85 percent of self-identified Republicans, Obama was winning only 78 percent of Democrats.

Yet Obama led McCain 48 percent to 42 percent in the survey, which was conducted June 5-10. Obama enjoyed a seven-point advantage among independents, but Gallup noted that even when independents were excluded, Obama still had a five-point lead because Democrats now outnumber Republicans 37 to 28 percent. When independents were asked their partisan leanings, the Democratic advantage reached 13 points.

In 2004, Kerry carried 89 percent of the vote among self-identified Democrats, according to the network exit poll, but Democrats and Republicans accounted for equal shares of the electorate. President Bush won with an even larger share (93 percent) of supporters of his own party.

David Winston, a Republican pollster, acknowledges his party's problems but is skeptical about large changes in party identification. While polls have often reported significant shifts in party loyalties during campaigns, he notes, the gap between the two parties historically narrows by Election Day. Independents, who turned on the GOP in 2006, remain the key to this year's outcome, he said.

The good news for McCain is that this year he has consistently run ahead of his party. The bad news is that the GOP is in such a deep hole McCain may not be able to climb out. When voters in a recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll were asked, without candidates' names, which party they wanted in the White House, Democrats had a 16-point lead. But when they were asked to choose between Obama and McCain, Obama led by only six points.

Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who worked for Hillary Clinton's campaign, sees evidence of a realignment in a steady move of middle-income voters. "Identification with the Democrats has crept up among voters in the $50,000- to $75,000-a-year range and is now moving up beyond that," partly in response to "the pain of the Bush economy."

The paradox is that sharp shifts in partisan identification often presage periods of bipartisanship. If Obama were to win because of the country's Democratic tilt, moderate Republicans in Congress could move toward him to protect themselves against a Democratic tide. A comparable shift of worried Democrats helped Ronald Reagan build bipartisan majorities for his tax and budget programs in 1981.

"There really is the potential for Barack Obama to build coalitions with Republicans in the middle -- if there are Republicans left in the middle," said Garin.

Even in the fractious Congress, such defections have already created bipartisan majorities for Democratic measures. In yesterday's House vote to extend unemployment benefits by 13 weeks, 49 Republicans broke with President Bush to support the measure and give it a veto-proof majority.

The realigning mood took concrete form in

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