July 25, 2004
Voters Are Very Settled, Intense and Partisan, and It's Only July
OLUMBUS, Ohio — Clif Kelley, a retired economist, stood in the leafy backyard of his suburban home one recent evening and summoned his Democratic neighbors, 62 of whom were arrayed before him, to the political barricades.
"We firmly believe that another four years of Bush in the White House will do incredible damage to this country," declared Mr. Kelley, 87, imploring his neighbors to get involved, knock on doors, make sure their precinct (which went to President Bush by six votes four years ago) goes for Senator John Kerry this time around.
"I am one of those World War II veterans who are dying off at a rapid pace, and I can't stand the thought of dying under a Bush administration."
That same intensity was palpable the following day, in Beckley, W.Va., where thousands of people like Jim Farnsworth, a 32-year-old telephone technician holding his 1-month-old son, turned out for a rally with Mr. Bush. "Voted for him last time, will vote for him again, would even vote for him a third term if he would run," Mr. Farnsworth said. "I like the convictions that he stands on. Abortion, family."
This is not the typical July of a presidential election year.
Rarely has a presidential campaign been this intense, this polarized, this partisan, this early. The conventions historically begin the general election season, ending a lull after the primary season has wound down. But for months now, the general election battle has been fully joined.
Crowds are bigger than normal for this time of year, campaign veterans say, and money has poured in at an astonishing rate. Voters sometimes seem on the verge of tears as they reach for their candidate's hand on the rope line. They wait in the rain, they line up for hours to go through the metal detectors and the increasingly elaborate security, they cheer every biting partisan line.
The idea of a red America and a blue America, Republican and Democratic, two countries separated by a yawning cultural divide, has become a cliché, dismissed by many experts as overdrawn. The electorate, taken as a whole, is no more divided over hot-button issues like abortion than it was in years past, those experts arue; a large middle ground still exists on many other issues, like the need for more affordable health care.
But the increasing partisanship of the 1980's and 1990's has left its mark on politics, culminating in the intensity of this campaign. Most voters have already chosen sides - sometimes angrily, often passionately. The swing voter and the independent, once thought to be the models of the modern voter, are harder to find this year, according to pollsters in both parties.
The trend has been building for a long time, many analysts say. Gary C. Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, said, "Over the past 30 years, after a long period of decline, partisanship has been increasing, in the proportion of people who identify with parties and who act on the basis of that identification."
Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, said that what has changed among voters is not their loyalty to party, per se, but the size of the gap between what Democrats and Republicans think and believe - on the social safety net, the role of government, the image of business.
In fact, the ideological lines between the parties have grown sharper, with Democrats more likely to be liberal, Republicans conservative. It was a gradual, but ultimately striking change: 25 years ago, more Democratic voters described themselves as conservatives than as liberals, according to polls by The Times and CBS News. In the same period, Republican voters calling themselves liberals fell from 15 percent to 8 percent. Today, conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans are a dwindling breed.
The Southern conservative wing of the Democratic Party, for generations a power in the region and on Capitol Hill, is now much diminished. Twenty-nine percent of white Southern male voters said they were Republicans in 1972; 49 percent in 2000, according to surveys of voters leaving polling places.
Similarly, white evangelical Protestants were evenly divided between the Democratic and Republican Parties in 1987-1988, according to the Pew survey; by 2003, nearly twice as many were Republicans as Democrats.
The voters have "sorted themselves out," as many experts put it, and found their ideological home. Frank McQuillen, a machinist in Beckley, for example, said he was a registered Democrat until this year, but had not voted for a Democrat for president since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
"I love George Bush," Mr. McQuillen said. "He's got the same convictions and principles that I have on a lot of things. Course, I don't agree with everything he stands for, but most of the important things I do."
Mr. McQuillen, wearing a sticker that declared he was a "Friend of Coal," added of Mr. Bush, "He's against big government, he's against abortion, he's against gay marriage."
Nowhere are the partisan divisions sharper than in the voters' views of President Bush. Eighty-four percent of the Republicans approve of the job he is doing, but just 16 percent of the Democrats do, according to the latest Times/CBS News poll.
The partisan gap in presidents' approval ratings soared with Ronald Reagan's re-election year and remained high with his successors, according to data from the Gallup Poll, which has tracked the subject for 56 years. But it has intensified with Mr. Bush.
Matthew Dowd, chief pollster and strategist for the Bush campaign, described the president's partisan approval rating as part of a trend that is many years in the making. "It's a reflection of the parity of the parties and where things stand in this country," Mr. Dowd argued.
Ralph Reed, another top Bush campaign adviser, said, "The divisions within the electorate are reflective not of the leadership style of the president but of deeper fault lines running through the country as a whole."
But Democrats, like Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, counter that Mr. Bush has heightened those divisions, run a fiercely partisan presidency, and abused the trust accorded him after the attacks on Sept. 11. "He basically had carte blanche for a year, and he spent it," Mr. Emanuel said.
The war with Iraq and the disputed circumstances of Mr. Bush's taking office have heightened the animosity among Democrats, many analysts say. Seventy-six percent of the Democrats in the most recent Times/CBS News poll said Mr. Bush was not the legitimate winner of the 2000 election.
When asked how she voted four years ago, Mary Jo Marraffa, a chiropractor at Mr. Kelley's backyard gathering in Columbus, replied: "I voted for the president who really won, but didn't get in. That one."
Martha Bowling, an elementary school counselor also at the party, is the mother of two marines - a son and a daughter - deployed in Iraq. "I don't resent them being gone," she said. "I am afraid to have a commander in chief whom I don't trust."
Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the House Democratic whip, said, "There is a hardened feeling on both sides."
Former Senator Warren B. Rudman, the New Hampshire Republican, said that after a lifetime in politics, "I don't recall the hatred - not just dislike and disagreement, but hatred - that a lot of Republicans had for Clinton and a lot of Democrats now have for President Bush."
Mr. Rudman and many other political veterans note that these passions are expertly stoked by the consultant-driven politics of the modern era. That is, perhaps, especially true this year, when many consultants believe the election will turn on which side best energizes and turns out its core constituents.
More fuel for the partisan fires comes from a simple fact: Rarely have the stakes been higher in terms of sheer power.
The Reagan era was an ideological time, many politicians noted, but each party had its stronghold and government was neatly divided. Republicans had the White House and, for six years, the Senate. Democrats seemed secure in the House and in statehouses around the country.
Now, Republicans have sweeping power - both houses of Congress, the White House and the potential of naming as many as three seats on the Supreme Court over the next four years. But their power is held by the narrowest of margins.
"We're living through a natural period of really intense struggle for power," said Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and a man widely credited with (or blamed for) bringing a new ideological edge to the chamber. "Until one side or the other succeeds, it will continue to be a slugging match because so much is at stake."
And voters on both sides seem to understand. Four years ago, only 45 percent of Americans said it "really matters" who wins the election; this year, 63 percent said so, according to the Pew Research Center. Democrats and independents particularly thought this was true.
Pat Kelley, Clif Kelley's wife, defined the stakes of a second Bush term this way: "I don't like his policies on the environment, and his policies on the Supreme Court just scare me to death. I see Scalia as taking over from Rehnquist.''
She added, "And he started this war with no reason."
The Kelleys said they felt they had to act. "We've never been involved like this before, in an election," Ms. Kelley said. "But this time it's serious. This is the most serious election in 70 years, I think."
Jennifer Walker, a former schoolteacher and stay-at-home mother of two from Nitro, W.Va., was no less serious as she outlined her case for Mr. Bush.
"I don't want to give the wrong impression, that he's all about the war," she said. "I think he would prefer peace. But it's not a perfect world. There are terrorists and hurtful regimes and sometimes you have to go to war. And once you start a war, you have to finish it. And I'm not sure that would happen if Kerry was elected."
For all the differences between Democrats and Republicans, there is also common ground. Big majorities in both parties, for example, believe major changes are needed in the health care system, according to the most recent Times/CBS News poll. On abortion, many voters take a far more nuanced position than the leaders of their parties.
Morris P. Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford and one of the authors of "Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America,'' says voters are far less divided than are their elected officials and party activists.
Still, as Mr. Kohut put it, "It is a very contentious year.'' And some elected officials are already looking ahead and worrying that the transition to governing will be that much harder for it.
Senator Olympia J. Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine, said, "At the end of the day you have to coalesce around some consensus solutions.''