Who Are We? Demographics of Republican Party Faithful Suggest That Realignment Has Been Occurring

By Rust, Michael | Insight on the News, March 4, 1996 | Go to article overview

Who Are We? Demographics of Republican Party Faithful Suggest That Realignment Has Been Occurring


Rust, Michael, Insight on the News


You've heard a lot about Republicans in the news during the past couple of years, but the odds are good you wouldn't recognize one instantly. When crafting the first part of a definition of Republican, most people will come up with "not a Democrat." After that it becomes difficult.

"The majority coalition is the coalition of social and economic conservatives that Ronald Reagan put together," says Texas GOP Chairman not. At the same time, he adds, "nobody on the presidential front has been able to do what Reagan did and unite the two groups." Perhaps not, but it is hard to deny that a coalition was assembled in 1994 to break four decades of Democratic domination on Capitol Hill.

At first glance, the GOP coalition that swept to victory in 1994 was familiar. The Voter News Service, a polling consortium consisting of the major broadcast networks, CNN and the Associated Press, has statistics showing that in age, sex and income, Republican voters in 1994 were quite similar to independent voters. Both Republicans and independents were 52 percent male; 34 percent of independents were age 30-44, as were 30 percent of the Republicans. The GOP held an edge among senior citizens and tended to be better represented among affluent voters, with 11 percent of the $75,000-$100,000 income range, compared with 8 percent for independents and 7 percent for Democrats. One area in which the GOP was in a class by itself was the category of race, with less than 2 percent of the black vote.

Small-business owners, disgruntled at what they considered excessive government regulation, voted Republican, as did 80 percent of voters who described themselves as "born again, evangelical [Protestant] or religiously devout Catholic." This group of social conservatives, worried about what they see as disastrous cultural decline, have become an increasingly important part of the GOP during the last 20 years, with Reagan drawing many blue Democrats to the Republican side.

In fact, for the better part of 15 years, Republicans themselves -- at least the kind who try to win public office -- have been trying to refashion themselves in a new image -- something different from the pre-Reagan image of the party, which Peggy Noonan, who was a speechwriter for the Great Communicator, once described as seemingly a party of "rich dullards' They have succeeded to a large extent, but this new coalition is much more volatile. In 1980, Reagan was swept into the White House by voters concerned about raging inflation at home and a relative decline of U.S. power abroad. Now voters are filled with less easily defined angst -- anxious about economic insecurity and what is regarded widely as a debasement and coarsening of American culture. In 1994, they focused their anger on something called "big government." Crafters of the Republican coalition are hoping that focus will carry over to this year; they know they cannot take any part of this coalition for granted.

In the old days, political identity frequently was part of one's heritage -- something to be worn as an ethnic/tribal badge. Occasionally, calamities such as the Great Depression or the tumult of the sixties would jar loose fixed political coalitions, but for the most part membership in a political party was seen as part of one's identity.

No more. The ongoing weakening of the party system has left political affiliation more of a consumer choice than a sign of identity. Republican operatives are not afraid that their electoral coalition will switch to the Democrats, they tell Insight. Rather, given the high level of public distrust of government and politicians, they fear cynicism and disappointment could cause their own voters to stay away from the polls.

That is especially true of religious conservatives, the focus of so much media attention since the 1994 election. "The real danger is turning these people off to politics completely and making them think that nothing matters"' says Republican pouster Ed Miller, director of research for the Polling Co. …

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