Merge Data Analysis: Examining the GOP’s struggles in the Northeast

By: Jeremy Ruch

This article highlights key findings from a merge analysis conducted by Public Opinion Strategies of all interviews conducted by the firm on national surveys since 2004.  This merge analysis contains more than 100,000 interviews (and growing) and is a valuable tool for tracking demographic and attitudinal shifts over time.  For more information about this merge analysis, please contact us at info@pos.org.

Republicans have lost significant ground in the Northeast* since 2004.
Nationwide, party ID has slipped from about even (-1) in 2004 to -7 in 2009.  This trend is magnified in the Northeast.  Republicans 10-point disadvantage in the Northeast (35% R – 45% D) in 2004 has eroded further to a 21-point deficit in 2009 (30% R – 51% D).  The Republican defection happened at a similar pace in the Mid-Atlantic (-15 in 2004 to -26 in 2009) as it did in New England (-8 in 2004 to -21 in 2009).

Republicans in the Northeast now make up only 17% of GOP partisans nationwide, down from 20% in 2004.  This decline in Republican identification has already altered the political map in the Northeast – not a single GOP House Member remains from New England, and several Republicans from the Mid-Atlantic lost in 2006 and 2008.  Further, among the 24 state legislative bodies in the Northeast, only one – The Pennsylvania State Senate – is controlled by Republicans.

Northeast Republicans are slightly more conservative than they were in 2004.
Not surprisingly, voters who no longer consider themselves to be Republican tend to have far less conservative beliefs than those who remained in the party.  Our April national survey demonstrated that among national voters who were formerly Republican, only 31% described themselves as conservative.  Among steadfast Republicans, 70% called themselves conservative.

This merge analysis showed a similar theme among Northeast Republicans.  In 2004, Northeast Republicans described themselves as conservative over liberal by a 58% – 7% margin (+51).  In 2009, Northeast Republicans say they’re conservative rather than liberal by 60% – 2% (+58).  This conservative shift, however, is less dramatic than Republicans nationally who went from 63% – 5% (+58) in 2004 to 70% – 2% (+68) in 2009.

But, they remain less conservative than Republicans nationwide.
The 2008 merge data shows that Northeast Republicans are less conservative than Republicans nationwide by 10 points (60% Northeast – 70% Nationally) and also less likely to be pro-life (59% vs. 67%).  And, when asked to rate their level of support for a number of groups using a scale of 1-10, they are less likely to call themselves a supporter of conservative religious groups (5.5 mean score vs. 6.3), less supportive of the NRA (6.2 vs. 7.1) and more supportive of gay rights (3.6 vs. 2.8).

The GOP has lost significant ground among several key groups.
(For a larger sample size among key groups, I looked at 2004 vs. 2008).
In 2004, Party ID among Northeast White voters was dead even (40% R – 40% D).  As of 2008, Republicans faced a 12-point deficit (34% – 46%).  Republicans have also lost a considerable amount of ground among Women (-19 in 2004 to -33 in 2008) and especially working women (-20 in 2004 to -42 in 2008).  The trouble continues among suburban voters (-4 in 2004 to -17 in 2008) and seniors age 65+ (-8 in 2004 to -20 in 2008).

There’s evidence to suggest that the GOP decline in the Northeast was driven at least in part by the perception of President Bush.  In 2005, Bush’s numbers among Northeast voters as a whole (42% approval) lagged significantly behind the rest of the country (49% Midwest, 54% South, 46% West).  Not surprisingly, Bush’s 2005 approval rating in New England (40%) was the lowest of all the 9-point regions.

In 2005, Northeast voters were also more likely to name the war in Iraq as the most important problem facing the country (22% versus 16% Midwest, 17% South, 20% West).  Concern about Iraq was especially high among New England voters, as 27% named it the most important problem.

Given that Bush’s job approval fell precipitously after 2005; and considering that concern about the war continued to increase; it follows course that Republican identification would decline in the Northeast.  This was especially true among key groups like women, seniors and suburban voters – groups who have traditionally made up the softer edge of the Republican coalition.

Implications for the Republican Party
Republicans have obviously lost significant ground in the Northeast over the past several years.  The dwindling number of Republicans means that GOP candidates in the Northeast are going to have to attract support from a significant number of Independents.

Generally speaking, Northeast Independents are more aligned with Republicans on a number of key issues.  Both Republicans (18% Right Direction – 75% Wrong Track) and Independents (23% – 64%) are still extremely pessimistic about the direction the country is headed compared to the extreme optimism of Northeast Democrats (62% – 32%)).  Independents are also more tempered in their assessment of President Obama, with 54% approving of the job he’s doing compared to 35% of Republicans and 93% of Democrats.  Northeast Independents are largely undecided on the generic Congressional ballot – 24% support the Republican candidate while 30% support the Democrat.

On the issues, Republicans are faced with some tricky calculus.  When it comes to naming the most important problems facing the country, Independents are closer to Republicans in how they rank government spending, the economy and moral values, while Independents are more closely aligned with Democrats on education and taxes.  On health care, Independents split the difference between Republicans and Democrats.

How the GOP can Grow the Party in the Northeast
The Republican Party still faces some serious image problems in the Northeast.  The July NBC/WSJ showed the GOP with a 21% positive and 42% negative image in the Northeast, lower than the party’s 28%-42% national image).

And, while President Obama’s approval rating has slipped dramatically across the country – especially on his handling of key issues – he still rates considerably higher among Northeastern voters.  The July NBC/WSJ poll showed that voters in the Northeast rated Obama six points higher than voters nation-wide on his job overall (59% to 53%), 13 points higher on his handling of the economy (62% to 49%) and six points higher on health care (47% to 41%).  However, even in the Northeast, Obama’s numbers regarding these issues continue to fall.

Republicans have reason to be optimistic for their chances in the Northeast in the near future.  Polling indicates that voters across the region are unhappy with their incumbent and ready to make a change from Democrats like Jon Corzine, Chris Dodd, Deval Patrick, and David Patterson.

It’s clear that many voters in the Northeast have left the party over the past several years because of their disapproval of President Bush and his handling of the War in Iraq.  In the current environment, many Independents and Soft Democrats are becoming increasingly concerned about the government over-reaching on issues like health care and the economy.  The best strategy for Republicans in the Northeast may be to represent a common-sense alternative to voters who are uncomfortable with the Obama agenda.

*Northeast is defined as follows: New England – Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont; Mid-Atlantic – Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia

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