Senator Arlen Specter, the former headline-chasing prosecutor from Philadelphia turned United States Senator from Pennsylvania is known as a loner in a club that values camaraderie above all else. But now Senator Specter has joined the largest political movement in the country in the last 12 months, the exodus from the Republican Party. According to all the recent national polls, from April 2008 to April 2009 over 17 million Americans left the Republican party. Specter makes it 17 million plus one.
How many have joined the Democrats? There has been no net increase in those calling themselves Democrats, according to most of the national surveys. Democratic identification, depending on which poll you use, has either remained the same or even decreased slightly since last April.
Instead, the shrinking of the Republican party has coincided with the largest number of Americans identifying as independents – between 85 and 88 million Americans (38 to 40%), depending on the poll – in a generation. Republican identification stands at 20 to 21% (about 42 million Americans) and Democratic i.d. is at 35% in most polls (about 75 million Americans).
Where has the exodus been most robust? A look at some of our surveys at Belden Russonello & Stewart from April 2008 to April 2009 yields some surprises: men under age 50, college graduates, and single people have been the most likely groups to bolt from the Republican party in the last 12 months.
For now, these Republican defectors are calling themselves independents – a group in which a majority approve of the way President Obama is handling his job.
When Senator Specter voted for the President’s stimulus bill, we should have known what was coming. By voting yes, Specter tore at the fabric of current Republican doctrine and joined the millions of Americans who have placed their faith in the country’s new President and his new leadership. An important part of that leadership includes a willingness to expand the role of government to repair the economy.
Specter’s vote for the stimulus bill and his decision to leave the GOP is all the more meaningful when you consider the fact that he holds the seat of former Senator Richard Schweiker, a liberal Republican from Pennsylvania who served in the Senate from 1968 to 1980. Schweiker achieved national prominence in 1976 when Ronald Reagan, in his first unsuccessful race for President, announced his intention to name Schweiker as his vice presidential running mate at the Republican convention. Conservatives were outraged. President Ford edged out Reagan for the nomination, and that was the end of Schweiker’s dance with national office. After becoming President, Reagan named Schweiker Secretary of Health and Human Services in 1981.
That was when the Republican party lived in a considerably larger tent, when it was ideological but not inflexible, national rather than regional. It was a time when Mr. Conservative Ronald Reagan saw value in choosing Mr. Liberal Richard Schweiker as a running mate on the Republican ticket.
Today, seventy percent of Republicans call themselves conservative and over four in ten live in the South, according to BRS surveys. Today, Schweiker, like Specter, would be part of that 17 million person movement that is growing in America.