Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Is Bush plowing fallow soil?

Once again, there is fresh evidence that George W. Bush has severely damaged the Republican party and imperiled its ’08 presidential nominee. It turns out that even rural Americans – roughly 20 percent of the national electorate – are profoundly fed up.

And if those folks say they are disenchanted, it means the GOP is in serious trouble.

Republican presidential candidates generally depend on winning big in the rural environs, to help offset the usual Democratic urban margins. That was the Bush formula in 2000 (when he won 59 percent of rural voters, topping Al Gore by a whopping 22 points), and again in 2004 (when he won the same percentage, besting John Kerry by 19 points). Bush’s father won the rural vote by 11 points in 1988. Ronald Reagan won the rural vote by 16 points in 1980 and by 34 points in 1984.

Yet today, in a new survey sponsored by the non-partisan Center for Rural Strategies, and designed on a bipartisan basis by Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg and GOP consultant Bill Greener, rural voters are signaling something different. When asked whether they would favor a Democratic or Republican presidential candidate in 2008, they opted for the Democrat by two points.

Among swing-voting independents who live in rural areas, the unnamed Democratic candidate is favored by 11 points; among blue-collar rural voters, the Democrat is favored by 12 points; and, perhaps, most significantly, the Democrat is favored by three points among rural voters who have family members fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan.

For the Republicans, these numbers should be a wake-up call that’s roughly equivalent to being jabbed in the kidneys with a cattle prod. The Democratic game plan for recapturing the White House in 2008 does not require winning the rural vote at all. They merely need to be competitive. They merely need not to get wiped out. Indeed, in both 1992 and 1996 Bill Clinton fought the GOP to a virtual draw in rural areas. This new poll suggests that the Democrats are well poised to do that again.

As GOP consultant Greener put it the other day, obviously choosing his words carefully, “Republicans are vastly underperforming among rural Americans. And if we’re going to succeed in 2008, we’re going to have to do better.” Or, as he said in the polling analysis that he co-authored with Greenberg, “Bush’s problems directly impact the entire Republican brand in rural America and usher in a new era of political competition…Democrats in turn have a historic opportunity to strike deep into the Republican base.”

And what’s Bush’s biggest problem, the problem that has triggered a 26-point plunge in his rural job approval since 2004? Take a wild guess.

It’s arguably no surprise that Iraq was cited by rural voters as their top issue - why should they be any different? – but what’s most significant is their personal stake in the war. As the polling analysis points out, “this is the part of the country that, more than others, sends its sons and daughters to do the fighting.” Here’s a stat you won’t see in suburbia: 75 percent of those surveyed know somebody who is fighting in the war; and 27 percent have a family member in harm’s way.

And if elected Democrats in Washington need any more evidence that it is politically safe to confront Bush on the war, consider this: Even in Republican-voting rural America, 50 percent agree with the statement that “the current course cannot bring stability, and we need to start reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq,” while 45 percent agree with the argument that “we must stay the course to achieve stability and finish the job in Iraq.”

I assume that some reality-challenged Republicans will be tempted to dismiss these numbers with the usual mantra - that surveys are a mere snapshot in time and that the only relevant poll is the one conducted on election day. But that line won’t fly, because rural voters have already vented their frustrations on election day. I am referring to last November, when the Democrats captured both the House and Senate – with serious help from rural voters.

Republican House candidates topped their Democratic counterparts by only three points among rural voters nationwide (a nine-point drop from the GOP’s winning rural margin in the 2002 House elections). Indeed, the ’06 Democratic rural surge helped propel the party into power; 18 House Republican incumbents with large rural electorates lost their seats. And the same pattern was evident in key Senate races – notably in Virginia, where Democrat James Webb ousted George Allen in part by dueling Allen to a virtual draw among rural voters (Webb won 49 percent of them); and in Missouri, where Democrat Claire McCaskill ousted Jim Talent in part by winning 45 percent of the rural vote.

Some Democratic strategists have arguing for years, and largely in vain, that their party has needlessly ceded rural voters to the GOP. Steve Jarding, one of the most prominent complainers, said several years ago, “It’s a moral argument. How morally right is it for our Democratic nominee for president to sell 60 million people, ‘You don’t matter to me?’” Last year he co-authored a book on the topic with Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, another Democratic strategist who believes in rural outreach; in an interview last year, Saunders argued that a Democratic presidential candidate could score big gains in rural areas if he or she takes the time to show respect for those voters' values. As Saunders put it, "These people have been voting Republican, but they're not really Republican, and we need to show 'em why" they should switch in '08.

But the new survey stats don't foresee '08 Democratic gains as a slam dunk. As the polling analysis makes clear, rural voters instinctively favor the Republicans as the folks more in tune with their way of life. These voters are ticked off about the Iraq war, and that has shaken their allegience to the GOP, but they still don't necessarily trust the Democrats on the crucially important "family values." As the analysis warns Democrats, "What is happening is less about an ideological alignment than a reflection on the current governance." (This helps explain why GOP candidates such as Mitt Romney are stressing "values" and barely mentioning Bush or Iraq.)

And Democrats should also remember that this survey was merely asking rural voters to choose between generic Democratic and Republican presidential candidates; once the actual names are filled in, their sentiments might be somewhat different. For instance, Hillary Clinton scored poorly in the survey, ranking lower than all the other major candidates, although presumably she would seek to employ some of the same strategies that enabled her to win over skeptics in the rural communities of New York State.

But the bottom line for the GOP is not encouraging. If Republicans have to spend precious time and money next year just to shore up their rural base, that alone is a Democratic advantage. It's tough to win a presidential race by playing defense.