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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - John Podhoretz

RealClearPolitics - Articles - John Podhoretz

Last Build Date: Tue, 09 May 2006 00:01:55 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2007

Hillary's 'Negatives' May Do Her a Lot of Good

Tue, 09 May 2006 00:01:55 -0600

In previous decades, Hillary's negatives would have torpedoed her candidacy. But there have been major changes in the past fifteen years that have altered the rules of American politics. The changes have to do with the way Americans think about politics, where Americans place themselves on the political spectrum, the increasing bitterness between the two parties, and the rallying effect now caused when a partisan politician becomes a target for the other side. Between 1980 and 2004, the number of Americans willing to identify themselves as Republicans grew by 25 percent, while the number of self-identified Democrats shrank by 20 percent. This collective realization has had profound political consequences. For one thing, it means we have now basically reached parity between the two parties, with passionate partisans on each side counting for somewhere between 35 and 40 percent of the vote. These are now hard-core voters who, at least for the foreseeable future, will never, ever cast a vote for the other side. In an election that swings to the Democrat, as was the case in 1996, the number of voters who say they are Democrats in exit polls and other data will be a tad higher than the Republican number, 38 to 36. In 2004, with the Republican Bush prevailing, the GOP number was a little higher than the Democratic number. This all sounds like fantastic news for the GOP, no? The country becomes more and more Republican, the party takes over the legislature and then the presidency and does pretty well at the state and local levels as well--why then should there be worry about the probable competition from the most controversial woman in America? Well, here's the bitter irony. The fact that the country has become more Republican as a result of the Clinton era may end up helping Hillary where the high-negatives problem is concerned. Polarization makes her elevation to the top of her party's heap more, not less, likely--and could get her elected. Lee Atwater came up with his 40-percent formula during the 1980s, when far more Americans said they were Democrats than said they were Republicans--Democrats remained around 40 percent, while Republicans scored anywhere between 25 and 30 percent in the Harris poll. Given that statistic, it seemed an insuperable challenge for Republicans to win office anywhere but in solid GOP states. Atwater and others figured out how to break the Democratic logjam, especially in the South--a region that maintained a significant Democratic advantage in party registration even as Democratic voters turned out in droves both for Richard Nixon in 1972 and for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. Atwater and the Atwaterites knew that while voters were more likely to call themselves Democrats and to hold Democratic Party registration, they were also far more likely to describe themselves as conservative than liberal--according to the Harris poll, 37 percent conservative to 17 percent liberal in 1985. Though Republican strategists could not depend on a solid bloc of Republican voters that would bring their candidates within striking distance, they could peel voters away from the Democrat by going after him not because of his party affiliation but because of his views. The goal of the GOP in the 1980s was to demonstrate to Democratic voters that there was a huge gulf between their values and interests and those of the elite Democrats who ran for office. If they could succeed at that task, they could get those voters to take a good look at the Republican candidate instead, for whom they would once never have voted. As a result, successful Republican campaigns outside GOP-dominated states focused on a candidate individually and specifically. They looked for symbolic ways to reveal how out-of-step he was with ordinary voters. This divide is what gave rise to the notorious commercials that converted the word "liberal" into a horrifying pejorative, spat out of the mouth of an unseen narrator with the same sort of contempt with which you might say "child molester." It worked. Atwater and others used the anti-liberal[...]