Three professors of government at the College of William and Mary performed the useful service last month of surveying delegates to both major party political conventions in Virginia and providing us with party profiles that are rich in detail about attitudes, issues and prominent political figures.
Much of what the professors - John McGlennon, Alan Abramowitz and Ronald Rappaport - turned up confirms conventional wisdom about Republicans and Democrats in Virginia. Far from undercutting the value of the results, that fact tends to lend credibility to a few findings that are mildly suprising.
Perhaps most pertinent to the current U.S. Senate race in Virinia was the finding that GOP delegates almost uniformly viewed themselves as "somewhat to very conservative."
But two out of five, according to the survey, rated GOP Senate nominee Richard D. Obenshain as more conservative than themselves.
Only one of every three Republicans surveyed classified themselves as "very conservative," but three out of four put that label on Obenshain. The Democratic delegates, half of whom rated themselves as "somewhat to very liberal," were in exact agreement with their GOP counterparts on Obsenshain's ideology. Three out of four at the Democratic convention also rated him as "very conservative."
Thus, there is a uniform view of the Republican candidate among party regulars of both parties. This is in sharp contrast with the perception among party regulars of Obsenshain's Democratic opponent, former Attorney General Andrew P. Miller. Seven out of 10 Republicans surveyed viewed him as "somewhat to very liberal," while seven out of 10 Democrats labeled him "middle of the road" to "somewhat conservative."
This could pose a problem for Obenshain if, as many of the state's experienced political figures believe, candidates who are easily pigeon-holed on the right or left start out with a strike against them when they are running against an opponent with a less distinct ideological image.
The problem may not be a severe one simply because Obenshain is relatively unknown to the Virginia voter. Both Democratic and Republican regulars know him well because he has been a prominent GOP official and a staunch supporter of his party's most conservative candidates and policies.
Miller is expected to continue his efforts to paint his opponent as an extremist, but expectations are equally strong that Obenshain will work to present a more moderate face to the electorate. His persistent advocacy of major federal tax reductions for middle-income workers is a step in that direction.
The professors' survey yielded one result that clashes with conventional wisdom about the Republican convention, whose total of 7,300 delegates made it the largest political convention ever held in the country. It had been generally assumed that the lavish campaign of former Navy Secretary John Warner had attracted most of the new delegates to the GOP nominating session and that they would be somewhat more moderate in their views than veteran Republican convention delegates.
The survey found no significant differences between new and old delegates on issues and showed that Obenshain and Warner each could count about one in three new delegates among his supporters. Former Gov. Linwood Holton got one in five and state Sen. Nathan H. Miller one in 15 of the new delegates.
The Republican and Democratic delegates were predictably divided on issues. The Republicans decisively opposed the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, public works job programs, national health insurance, government funding of abortions, tax reforms to aid low-income workers at the expense of the affluent, wage price controls to slow inflation and labor law changes that appear to help unions at the expense of businesses.
The Democratic delegates decisively favored these policy proposals, according to the survey, when the answers of those delegates supporting unsuccessful Senate candidate G. Conoly Phillips were not counted. Phillips, a Norfolk City Council member and born-again Christian, brought a contingent of conservative supporters to the convention whose questionaire answers were more similar to Republican responses than to those of other Democratic delegates. In fact, two out of every five Phillips supporters identified themselves as strong Republicans or Republican leaders.
The Republican delegates decisively favored the death penalty, substantially higher defense spending and deregulation of natural gas prices. The Democrats opposed these policy positions and did so by decisive margins with the Phillips delegates votes taken out. The Republicans overwhelmingly favored more rapid development of nuclear power and the Democrats were evenly divided on that issues.
The Republican delegates and the non-Phillips Democratic delegates agreed on only one issue. Both opposed use of numerical goals to increase minority college enrollments - the Republicans by an overwhelming margin and the Democrats by a smaller but still decisive one.
The two sets of delegates also gave generally predictable favorable and unfavorable ratings to prominent political figures, with those from each party liking their own leaders and not liking those from the other side.
However, the Democratic delegates broke form on one Republican, the moderate Holton. Two out of five Democrats gave him a favorable rating and only one out of three unfavorable. The rest were neutral. This is a [WORD ILLEGIBLE]that, too late, shores up Holton's claims to electability as a Senate candidate.
The Democrats also were surprisingly netural overally in their rating of Gov. John N. Dalton, the conservative Republican who beat Democrat Henry E. Howell only last fall. Half gave Dalton an unfavorable rating, but one in four rated him favorably and one in four was neutral.
Howell, a polarizing figure in the party, was rated favorably by only half of the Democratic delegates and unfavorably by one in three.