The fabled GOP political advisor Lee Atwater helped the senior George Bush win the presidency in 1988 by admonishing him to spend more time connecting with voters in bowling alleys. The political equivalent for GOP candidates in this era may be the frequent flyer club at their airport.
First, here’s a reality check for those of you reading this in the first class section: Just 27% of the electorate is a member of an airline frequent flyer club, according to the latest Public Opinion Strategies national survey conducted in April. That’s far fewer than have a grocery store loyalty card (86%), for example. These voters are slightly older than the electorate overall, less diverse, and they are decidedly up-scale – 64% have a household income of $80,000 or more and 69% have a college or post-graduate degree. They are the stereotypical image of how most people describe a Republican – essentially White, older, and rich.
But, here’s the rub. They do not overwhelmingly consider themselves to be Republicans anymore. Among frequent flyers, Democrats currently have a nine point partisan advantage (28% identify as a Republican, 37% as a Democrat and 35% as an Independent or something else). Among all other voters, this partisan advantage is five points. Now, granted that is beyond margin of error, but not huge. What is more significant is how many of these frequent flyers describe themselves as former Republicans. Fully 23% say they used to be Republican, one of the highest proportions of any demographic group we examined and only eclipsed by college-educated men (28%). Nearly half of frequent flyers (48%) describe themselves as ideological moderates.
This defection might not be all that consequential if these were just lackadaisical voters who have unplugged from the system, but frequent flyers are decidedly “plugged in.” Fully 95% have a home computer, 49% use social networking sites like Facebook (20 points higher than non-frequent flyers), and 64% say they follow politics and news event very closely (again, 20 points higher than non-frequent flyers).
It will not be an easy task to lure these voters back to the GOP. Nearly two-thirds (64%) approve of the job President Obama is doing now, and a majority (55%) say they like Obama and his policies. GOP ideas and messages are also not getting through to even these very plugged in voters. Just 16% of frequent flyers say they have seen anything about GOP policy alternatives to the budget and stimulus proposals.
That being said, there do appear to be openings. While the rest of the electorate gives Democrats a five point advantage on a generic Congressional ballot, frequent flyers are evenly divided between the two parties. Frequent flyers are most worried by Obama’s policies to increase government spending (30% say this is the main concern they have so far with Obama). They are also evenly divided on the impact of the economic stimulus plan on their family, as just as many say it will hurt their family (40%) as say it will help their family (43%).
So, Republicans may consider striking up that conversation with the person across the aisle. That frequent flyer very well may be the best hope for a GOP upgrade back to political first class.