Patrick J. Buchanan's venture into the unknown terrain of the Reform Party presents a crucial question: If nominated, would he take more votes from the Republican or the Democratic presidential nominee?
The conventional wisdom, and evidence from poll data, is that Buchanan would hurt the GOP nominee substantially more than the Democrat, and consequently has the potential to swing the election to the Democrat if the contest is very close. Few people outside the Buchanan campaign believe that if he wins the Reform Party nomination he could go on and actually win the presidency.
At the moment, most polls show that he would take two to four percentage points more from the GOP nominee than the Democrat, enough to turn a 51 to 49 percent Republican tally into a Democratic victory. But that is by no means a certainty, especially since Buchanan has indicated that he intends to seek out support from likely Democratic voters, some of whom have been receptive to his views.
Buchanan's campaign is focused in large part on industrial workers, many of them unionized, whose factories and plants have laid off employees or shut down. He has toured such depressed areas in New York and Virginia, and he has been pounding anti-free trade and other protectionist themes in his fight against China's entry into the World Trade Organization.
Many, but not all, of the voters moved by these issues are working-class Democrats.
A recent Washington Post survey exploring voter concerns and worries found that many of the issues Buchanan stresses resonate most strongly with conservative Democrats. Their level of concern is higher than other partisan constituencies about jobs moving overseas, foreign aid reducing the ability of the United States to take care of people at home, and illegal immigration, all key Buchanan issues.
Buchanan has, in the past, stressed the "culture war" issues of abortion, moral decline and the damaging effects of the "liberal" cultural and government establishments. These are themes that appeal most strongly to Republicans, especially conservative Republicans with ties to the religious right.
Republican pollster Fred Steeper, who conducts surveys for the Republican National Committee and is a George W. Bush supporter, said Buchanan would get "the people who supported Ross Perot and George Wallace." Among these voters, Steeper said, "there would be more men than women, and they would be younger voters. They will be angry people, people willing to take a flier, ergo younger people and men."