This column was written by Mark Hemingway.
There are many strange creatures in the political zoo, and this election brings us the discovery of a new species that has been the focus of much media attention - the Republican for . In fact, the idea that Obama is garnering significant Republican support is a veritable media meme. The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, and the Times of London have all done high-profile articles on the Republicans for Obama phenomenon (so have many other publications that do not have the word "Times" on the masthead).
Aside from "Republicans for Obama" being a media meme, on a campaign conference call earlier this week, former Iowa Republican congressman Jim Leach and former Rhode Island senator Republican Lincoln Chafee announced the formation of "Republicans for Obama." Of course, neither Leach nor Chafee is particularly known for his staunch conservatism; they're members of one of the least popular species in the political zoo: RINOs, or Republicans In Name Only. Chafee even formally left the Republican party in 2006, but it seems doubtful that naming the group "Former Republicans for Obama" would be well received.
Nonetheless, Chafee and Leach's announcement stole a few more headlines. When Leach claimed that Obama is rooted in "old American values that are as much a part of the Republican as the Democratic tradition," it was even reported with a straight face. Of course, given Leach's lifetime rating of 43 percent from the American Conservative Union, there's no compelling evidence that Leach has any idea what American values have been espoused by Republicans over the last 50 years, let alone how Obama's liberal politics are somehow welcoming to Republicans.
So much for Leach and Chafee. Gauging whether there's any actual grassroots Republican support for Obama is another matter. John Martin is the founder of another group, also called "Republicans for Obama," which he started in December 2006, before Obama even officially declared his candidacy. The organization now claims "over 2,000" members from all corners of the country.
Though he admits he's of a more libertarian bent on gay marriage and other social issues, Martin says he's a solid Republican bordering on conservative. A Naval reservist who just returned from Afghanistan, he declares himself to be pro-life and an avowed fan of Rush Limbaugh who as a teenager used his allowance money to buy issues of National Review.
So why Obama? "Right now we're definitely not confident with our prospects in the world, not confident about our future or our economy and Barack Obama is definitely the kind of leader that has the ability to uplift people the way that Ronald Reagan did," Martin told National Review Online. "Of course he's more liberal than I am - he's more liberal than most people within our organization, because we are Republicans, but he has the ability to bring people together so we can solve our problems that we've just ignored for the last two decades because of partisanship."
This idea, however - that Obama can bring the parties together - is an assertion backed by scant evidence. Senator Obama's brief time in the Senate is marked by a voting record that shows him to be more of a Democratic partisan than the Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Martin counters by noting it's hard to be overly concerned about Obama's lack of a bipartisan voting record given his short time in the Senate and the fact that the Republican leadership's agenda during that time was so far removed from traditional Republican values like small government.
"He worked with Tom Coburn on legislation to make all federal spending available to the public online," Martin said. "That legislation was held up in the Senate by [Republican Senator] Ted Stevens - the bridge-to-nowhere guy."
But ultimately, Obama isn't running against the Republican party. Specifically, he's running against, who unlike Obama, has a long and proven track record of both bipartisanship and fiscal conservatism. "John McCain is great," Martin said. "They're both great at working on issues in a bipartisan manner." But it comes to down to a matter of enthusiasm: Obama is "a young guy, he's energizing a lot of the electorate that McCain is not going to energize. . . . [He] really is a fresh start. Barack Obama really represents the best way we can turn the page in this country."
It seems there's no getting around the fact that some Republicans simply like Barack Obama. The question, then, is whether or not this unusual pocket of support is significant enough to have any tangible effect on the election - or even justify the ongoing media coverage. A number of "Republicans for Obama" stories popped up in major newspapers last year before a single vote was cast. The coverage of this supposed phenomenon has been driven almost solely by anecdotes and endorsements - the latter rather few in number.
Case in point: The Los Angeles Times's article on the subject - "They're Republican red, and true blue to Obama," a 1,500-word feature that ran on February 25 - is heavy on anecdotes, but includes only a few bits of data. "Republicans made up 6% of voters in Missouri's Democratic primary, 7% in Virginia's and 9% in Wisconsin's. (Most states make it harder to vote in the other party's contest.) The overwhelming majority cast their ballots for Sen. Obama, according to exit polls," the article said.
Of course, the primaries in Virginia and Wisconsin were held after Mitt Romney dropped out - virtually assuring McCain the nomination, and giving Republican voters a strong incentive to cast their vote in the still competitive Democratic race. Rush Limbaugh even launched his Operation Chaos to encourage Republicans to vote in the Democratic contests. As for the six percent of Republican voters who voted in Missouri's Super Tuesday primary, that figure doesn't mean much placed in recent historical context.
According to CNN exit polls, in the 2004 presidential election six percent of self-identified Republicans voted for Kerry. In 2000, CNN's exit polls showed that eight percent of Republicans voted for Gore. And this was in the general election, where - unlike the primaries - there's no tangle of incentives for voters to cross over from their party affiliation to vote strategically.
Meanwhile, the divisiveness of the Democratic primary contest doesn't appear to be working in Obama's favor. In a Gallup poll taken in March before the contest ended, 28 percent of Hillary supporters said they would vote for McCain. In June, after Obama had sewn up the nomination, that figure was still at 22 percent, according to a CBS survey. And potential discontent among Hillary voters could be a major issue at the convention. Democrats for McCain could prove to be the far more significant crossover voting bloc in November.
Despite this, media hype is ensuring that Republicans for Obama remain the most popular attraction at the political zoo. While such animals do exist and are no doubt sincere, attempts to spot large packs of them in the wilds of the American electorate are proving less than successful.
By Mark Hemingway
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online