SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- There was a four-paragraph item in last Tuesday's New York Times, under the headline "What Matters Most," that got me thinking about this coming election. We are headed toward one of the most interesting and perhaps important contests in decades, at least since Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980.
There were real issues in that election. Republican Reagan and Democrat Carter simply lived in different countries; they saw the world and issues from totally different perspectives. Reagan won, and he changed the way Americans thought, ending the Rooseveltian assumption that the government protected Americans against the power of big business and big interests. Reagan turned old populism on its head by persuading folks that the real problem was big government.
This time around, it seems, the people themselves, Republicans and Democrats, are living in separate Americas. I don't mean the "two Americas," rich and poor, that former senator John Edwards has made the keystone of his campaign in the Democratic primaries. Frankly, there are millions of rich Democrats and more poor Republicans.
The Times item, written by Marjorie Connelly, was a second cut at figures in an early July New York Times/CBS poll. The story reported then was about candidates, "the horse race," who's up and who's down. This week's bit was about issues -- actually, responses to the 17th question asked by the pollsters -- and it showed that Republicans and Democrats thought the election was about different issues.
That question read: "In deciding who you would like to see elected president next year, which ONE of the following issues will be most important to you?"
There were only seven choices offered by the questioners, but Republican respondents gave fundamentally different answers than Democrats.
The Republicans, in order, said "terrorism," "immigration" and the "war in Iraq." Democrats said the war, terrorism, "the economy" and "health care."
Some of the differences were striking: 31 percent of Republicans listed as probable primary voters said terrorism, but only 8 percent of Democrats did; 24 percent of Democrats listed as probable primary voters said the war, but only 15 percent of Republicans did; 22 percent of Democrats said health care, but only 6 percent of Republicans did. Immigration was chosen as the most important issue of the elections by 16 percent of Republicans, but only 6 percent of Democrats.
Cutting another way, there were also differences in the issues chosen by women and men of both parties. The war was the choice of 24 percent of women, but only 15 percent of men. On immigration, the count was 12 percent of men, but only 7 percent of women.
The Times poll results made me think that as pathetic as they look now, Republicans will do far better next November than most pundits think. Most of us are on record as saying it is almost impossible for any Republican -- certainly not any of the current crop of candidates -- to defeat any Democrat after the disastrous reign of George W. Bush. But these numbers indicate how polarized American politics is now and that most "real" Republicans, at least a third of the nation, are going to stick with the party.
After reading the results, I scurried to the Internet and other pollsters to check their numbers. The Rasmussen Report, which polls the nation daily by telephone and has an impressive track record in the tricky business of predicting elections, led its report last Thursday with this: "While America's voters are not particularly happy with the current Republican president, the leading Democratic presidential candidates have no advantage over the top GOP hopefuls when it comes to Iraq, the economy or the nation's optimism. Democratic candidates do have an advantage when it comes to the environment, while the GOP candidates hold the lead on immigration."
"Which candidate would do the best job resolving the war in Iraq?" was one Rasmussen question. Sen. Hillary Clinton finished first with 20 percent of the total respondents. But the final tally indicated that 42 percent of respondents said Democratic candidates would do best and 41 percent said Republican candidates would do best.
That confirmed for me, again, that the nation is polarized. Never underestimate the power of "my party -- right or wrong"!
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