"Limbaugh Effect" Is Fairly Insignificant

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

What happens when primary voters "cross over" to vote in the other party's primary? Do they wish that party good, or ill, when they choose a candidate?

Before the March 4th primaries in Texas and Ohio, Rush Limbaugh urged Republicans to cross over to keep the Democratic Party full of what he called "chaos and tumult." Is there any evidence that Republicans did that?

"Crossover voters" are really two different types of voter. Most consider themselves "independents," not fully affiliated with either party, even though many of them sometimes behave like party members. In our national polls, more than four in ten registered voters who call themselves independents said they had - or intended to - vote in a party's primary this year. And many years of surveys indicate that many people who say they are independent have a history of voting for candidates of only one party.

The second kind of crossover voter is rarer: this primary season it is the self-identified Republican who decides to bypass the Republican primary and vote instead in the Democratic contest. [This year very few people who call themselves Democrats are choosing a Republican ballot.] This is easy to do in states that hold "open" primaries where there is no party registration. Voters simply choose a ballot or declare a preference when they arrive at the polls. And in the vast majority of caucus states, pretty much anyone can arrive at a caucus site and fill out the required paperwork to become a Democrat - even if just for that one day.

In the exit polls, voters are asked to identify themselves by party with the following question: "No matter how you voted today, do you usually think of yourself as a Democrat, Republican, independent or something else?" In the Democratic primaries overall, fewer than 5 percent of voters said they were Republicans. And that five percent voted for Barack Obama 53 percent to 39 percent over Hillary Clinton - which is very much like the votes of self-identified independents, who split 55 percent for Obama, 39 percent for Clinton.

In most individual states, the actual number of interviews with Republican-identified voters has been so small that there simply aren't enough of them to analyze properly. But in states where exit polls CAN identify enough Republican crossover voters, a complex picture emerges. Illinois, Obama's home state, and Missouri, which borders it, both held open Democratic primaries on February 5, Super Tuesday. Obama led convincingly among Republican voters in both places. Missouri's 75 percent to 21 percent margin in Obama's favor was even greater than the 60 percent to 36 percent vote Republicans in Illinois gave him. Republican crossovers in two other states that voted later in February - Virginia and Wisconsin - also gave Obama big margins.

But Obama did NOT do anywhere near as well with Republicans in some other states. Mississippi, the most recent state to vote, had the largest share of Republican crossovers - 12 percent of the Democratic primary vote there was cast by people who identified as Republicans. Obama received only 25 percent of their vote. But that is not much different from the 26 percent of the vote he won from all white voters in Mississippi (and nearly all those exit-polled Republicans were white). In Alabama, Ohio and Texas, Republicans participating in the Democratic primaries divided evenly between Obama and Clinton. Obama carried Republicans in the Iowa Caucuses (with 44 percent of the total), but he did not do so in either South Carolina or Florida. John Edwards did.

So, are Republican crossovers voting FOR a candidate or AGAINST one? The March 4 primaries present a good test, especially since they took place after Limbaugh's suggestion. Three of the four states voting that day, including the big states of Ohio and Texas, had completely open primaries. The fourth, Rhode Island, was semi-open. It had party registration, but independents were allowed to vote in either party's primary.

Self-described Republicans made up 9 percent of all voters in the four states combined, about twice the average crossover in all the other previous states. [The Republican share of the February 19 Wisconsin Democratic primary vote was also 9 percent.] In Texas, Obama won 53 percent of that total; in Ohio, Obama and Clinton each took 49 percent.

The exit polls didn't ask whether Republican crossover voters were motivated by their ability to create "chaos and tumult" in the Democratic race. But they were asked one question that may help us discover their motivations.

They were asked whether they would be generally satisfied or dissatisfied if each candidate won the nomination. One would expect a sincere voter to say they would be satisfied if the person they voted for became the nominee. And among Obama's and Clinton's Democratic supporters, nearly all say they would be satisfied if the person they voted for became the nominee. But the figure is lower among each candidate's Republican crossover backers. Not much lower in the case of Obama, however: Eighty six percent of Republicans who were Obama voters said they would be satisfied if he became the nominee. But significantly lower for Clinton: just 72 percent of her Republican supporters would be satisfied if she were the nominee.

By March 4, the Democratic primary was clearly the more interesting race, so it's not surprising that even self-identified Republicans would choose to participate in the Democrats' contest, that day, rather than add to the expected landslides that would assure John McCain the Republican nomination. The exit poll results suggest that the vast majority of crossover Republican voters for both Democratic candidates were sincere when they cast their vote. Yes, some of those Republicans may have intended to cause mischief, but nowhere near enough of them appear to have crossed over based on Limbaugh's request for Democratic "chaos and tumult."
By Kathy Frankovic
  • Kathleen Frankovic

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