Earlier this fall, when former Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers was still the one making courtesy calls on Capitol Hill, it was Republican conservatives whose outspoken discontent was drawing attention. Now, with a conservative gubernatorial candidate defeated in red-state Virginia and GOP centrists getting stubborn in the House and Senate, it's moderates who are getting their chance to gripe.
If the party's rank-and-file voters are any indication, it's moderates who by far are the grumpier group.
In an August Washington Post-ABC News poll, a solid 85 percent of GOP moderates approved of the job George W. Bush was doing as president, including 60 percent who "strongly approved." By early November, overall support had dropped 24 points among moderates, and only 30 percent remained strong backers. In contrast, overall support among Republican conservatives has held steady.
It's not just Bush who is getting lackluster reviews. While 74 percent of conservatives say Republicans in Congress are doing a good job, backing falls to 54 percent among GOP moderates, down 22 points from early summer. About one-third of moderates say their party's leadership is taking them in the wrong direction.
One potential wedge is the role of conservative religious groups in determining the party's agenda. In the most recent Post-ABC News poll, 44 percent of GOP moderates said that conservative religious groups have "too much influence" in the Bush administration, compared with 17 percent who thought those groups didn't hold enough sway. About a third saw religious conservatives as appropriately influential.
But there are also important cleavages among Republicans over Iraq. The majority of moderate Republicans are still behind the war (nearly 6 in 10 said it was worth fighting). In contrast with conservatives, however, a 66 percent majority of moderates called the current level of U.S. military casualties "unacceptable."
And moderates were also more likely to say the charges contained in the indictment of former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby represented a serious crime if proved, rather than a minor one.
The poll offered a couple of consolations for the Republican leadership: First, conservatives in their party still outnumber moderates (55 to 39 percent in the most recent survey). Second, few moderates currently see the Democrats as an appealing alternative. Asked which party they would support if the midterm elections were being held now, 13 percent of Republican moderates chose the Democrats, and 80 percent stuck with the GOP.
In Loudoun, a Lesson for Democrats
For the past couple of years, despairing Democrats have been asking, "What's the matter with Kansas?" That was the title of an influential book that addressed the party's problems winning over voters who might be sympathetic on economic grounds but who turn away on cultural issues.
Now, however, Democrats can take pleasure in another question: What's going right in Loudoun County?
The Northern Virginia locality backed George W. Bush a year ago with 56 percent of the vote, but last week backed Gov.-elect Timothy M. Kaine with 53 percent.
A new poll and accompanying analysis suggest there are lessons in this turnabout that might have implications nationally for Democrats. The survey was taken by the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research on Nov. 8-9 and was funded by Communities for Quality Education (CQE). In many ways, Loudoun is a classic "exurb" -- a fast-growing and culturally conservative area in the outer ring of a major metropolitan area. In 2004, 96 of the 100 fastest-growing counties nationwide voted for Bush.
The winning model? Traffic and education. Forty percent of those polled ranked "transportation and roads" as either their first or second priority when it came to picking a gubernatorial candidate; 38 percent said education. Asked which candidate would do a better job handling those issues, Kaine held a 23 percentage point advantage over state Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) on education and a 16 percentage point edge on transportation. Interestingly, the death penalty and illegal immigration -- two of Kilgore's top talking points -- were ranked as the most important voting issues by just 3 percent and 13 percent, respectively, of people questioned.
Pointing to those figures, Greg Speed, a spokesman for CQE, concluded that "education was front and center to Kaine's victory in the exurbs."
It also didn't hurt Kaine's chances that 75 percent of the Loudoun sample approved of the way outgoing Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) had handled his job, while only 44 percent said the same of Bush.
Deane is The Post's assistant polling director. Cillizza is a staff writer for washingtonpost.com. The Fix, his online politics column, appears daily at www.washingtonpost.com/thefix.