Is There A Political Patriotism Gap?

Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., wears a U.S. flag pin as he is introduced at a town hall-style meeting at Thorngate Ltd., in Cape Girardeau, Mo., Tuesday, May 13, 2008. AP

This column was written by CBS News director of surveys Kathy Frankovic.

Flags will fly everywhere this July 4th weekend: According to a Fox News survey taken last year, 86 percent of Americans said they owned a flag, and two-thirds (68 percent) said they had flown one in the previous year. Americans also express their patriotism in surveys, where the vast majority consider themselves "very patriotic."

When patriotism has entered the political arena as a campaign issue in recent years, it has typically been to the benefit of Republicans. Despite John Kerry's decorated war service, more Americans told the Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll that the word "patriotic" applied more to Republican George W. Bush than to Democrat John Kerry. In 1988, more voters thought George H.W. Bush was very patriotic than thought his opponent, Democrat Michael Dukakis, was.

Last year, for the Forth of July, I wrote about "patriotism" - what people think it is and its effect on political campaigns. This campaign, the overall Republican advantage on patriotism seems smaller. A year ago, a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll asked registered voters: "Do you think of one of the two major political parties as being more patriotic than the other party?" Nearly two-thirds said they did not. And while more voters who saw a difference considered the Republican Party more patriotic than the Democratic Party, the margin was very small - 19 percent to 11 percent. A Democracy Corps poll of likely voters, taken this March, found 32 percent saying they associated the Democratic Party more with the term "patriotic" when it came to national security, while 38 percent associated "patriotic" more with the Republican Party.

A result that close could have arisen because recent polls have shown fewer and fewer people being willing to identify themselves as Republicans. President Bush's approval rating is at an all-time low. More people now than ever before think things in the U.S. are headed in the wrong direction. And there are widespread concerns about the economy.

But even though his party doesn't fare all that badly in the "patriotism," competition, Democratic presumptive nominee Barack Obama still faces problems. He has been weathered criticism for not wearing a flag pin, and he has been dogged by false rumors that question his patriotism (Does he really refuse to put his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance? Of course not.)

In late April, only 29 percent of registered voters in a CBS News/New York Times Poll said they would describe Obama as "very patriotic." That percentage was dwarfed by the 70 percent who attributed that characteristic to John McCain. Adding those who said "somewhat patriotic" to the total still resulted in a large McCain lead. Nearly all registered voters (92 percent) described McCain as at least somewhat patriotic, while 74 percent said that about Obama.

The doubts about Obama weren't just from Republicans. In late April, Obama and Clinton were still engaged in their primary battles, and more Democratic primary voters (61 percent) thought McCain was "very patriotic" than thought Obama was (39 percent).
Even groups that were very positive about Obama displayed a "patriotism gap." Forty seven percent of people with more than a college education said Obama was very patriotic, 83 percent of them said McCain was. Thirty nine percent of young voters thought Obama was very patriotic, but 57 percent of them thought that about McCain. African-Americans, Obama's strongest supporters, were just as likely to describe McCain as very patriotic as to say Obama was.

Differences among other groups were striking. Independents were more than twice as likely to view McCain as very patriotic as to say that about Obama. Women were two and a half times as likely; Southerners three times as likely.

Our CBS News/New York Times Polls have not been alone in noting this difference in perceptions of the candidates. A Pew Research Center Poll, conducted about the same time, had similar findings: 90 percent of adults said they thought of McCain as patriotic; just 61 percent thought of Obama that way. A CNN/Opinion Research Poll, conducted last week, showed the gap narrowing, but not closing. Ninety percent said McCain "is patriotic"; 73 percent said that about Obama.

Americans sometimes see patriotism in what people do, but also in how they display it. In the 1988 campaign George Bush made a point of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to highlight the differences between him and Michael Dukakis, who as Governor of Massachusetts had vetoed a bill to require schoolteachers to lead their class in the Pledge of Allegiance (Dukakis had been told by the State Supreme Court, in an advisory opinion, that the bill was unconstitutional). An April NBC News/Wall St. Journal Poll found that four in ten registered voters said they had some concerns about Obama being "not patriotic enough as shown by the fact that he does not wear an American flag pin on his lapel." Seventeen percent had major concerns about it.

And very recently, the Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll discovered the issue hasn't gone away for one in three voters, who said just a few weeks ago - in mid-June - they cared whether or not a candidate wears an American flag pin.

This has put Obama in much the same position as earlier Democratic candidates. His speech last Monday, asserting his patriotism, was meant to overcome the difficulties he has faced in convincing at least some voters about his love for America. Perhaps because he was aware of this, when he gave that speech, he didn't talk about wearing flag pins - he wore one.

Happy Fourth!
By Kathy Frankovic
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