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Democrats gain among US voters, but support is soft

Half lean toward or identify themselves as Democrats, while 35 percent say they are Republicans, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

Political strategist Karl Rove has long dreamed of an America where a clear majority of voters are Republicans. But he's leaving the White House at a time when GOP popularity is at its lowest ebb in years.

In 2002 the two great parties that govern the nation were at rough parity in terms of adherents. But now half of US voters lean toward or identify themselves as Democrats, according to figures by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in Washington. The corresponding figure for Republicans has slid to 35 percent.

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This doesn't mean that Democrats at all levels should be planning victory parties early. Their new supporters aren't particularly enthusiastic – and easily could be lured away.

As is often the case in US politics, voters aren't looking for a new ideological home so much as new policies and a feeling that national life has shifted to a different track.

In 2008, "the party that offers the more convincing vision of positive change for the country is the party that will emerge victorious," concludes a recent analysis of the electorate by Lake Research Partners, a Democratic polling firm in Washington.

Karl Rove was the architect of two victorious presidential campaigns, and served as unofficial chief strategist for a GOP whose governing coalition did not break apart until the 2008 elections.

Much of the slide in Republican popularity is fallout from the war in Iraq, and pocketbook issues such as the rise in gas prices – events over which Rove likely had little control. He has often complained of being thought the driving force behind policies with which he had nothing to do.

Still, the decline of the GOP on Rove's watch has occurred on a number of levels and throughout different types of voters.

"We might be seeing conservatism imploding in the years of George W. Bush," says Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University in Washington.

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After all, the Republican Party's poll numbers are now grim.

"Seventeen months before the nation chooses its next president, most signs from the political environment favor the Democratic Party," says a new Gallup Poll Election 2008 analysis.

Democrats have a clear advantage in party identification among the voting-age population, according to Gallup. Plus, the basic indicators of the nation's mood are quite negative. In a July Gallup survey, 74 percent of respondents said they were dissatisfied with the way things are going in the US at this time.

A sour mood is "something that typically bodes well for the party not currently occupying the White House," says the Gallup analysis.

Meanwhile, some of the key trends in national attitude that helped fuel the Republican resurgence of the mid-1990s have moderated, according to Pew Research.

The proportion of Americans who say they support "traditional social values" has declined eight percentage points during that period. Strong personal religious commitment has also modestly declined, according to Pew.

Meanwhile, there's been an increase in the percentage of respondents who say the government should help needy people – from 41 percent in 1994 to 54 percent today.

Yet in political terms, the Democratic Party's gains from these trends remain soft, say analysts.

The party's core supporters have not necessarily increased. What's happened is that the share of self-described US independents who "lean" Democratic has risen from 12 percent in 2002 to 17 percent in the most recent Pew survey.

"The survey suggests that even these Democratic gains reflect independents' dissatisfaction with the Republican Party more than any greater liking for the Democrats," concludes the Pew analysis.

And alienated voters are fickle voters, warn other experts. They often stay at home on election day, creating unpredictable swings in turnout. They are easily attracted to third-party candidates who promise radical change.

"Democrats should not relish an increasingly alienated electorate on any grounds," write Democratic strategists Stan Greenberg and James Carville in a July 31 study of polling trends.

As former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has recently pointed out, the recent French election shows that voters can sometimes opt for a candidate they feel is a breath of fresh air without changing the party that controls the government. New French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been hailed at home as reenergizing the nation – yet both he and predecessor Jacques Chirac are conservatives.

In addition, Democrats in Congress have not taken the nation by storm, at least as measured by polls.

Fifty-two percent of voters disapprove of the performance of Democrats in Congress, according to the most recent bipartisan Battleground Poll. "Before Democrats in Congress get overconfident, they need only to look at their own ratings. They have blown the opportunity they were given following the 2006 election," writes GOP strategist Brian Tringali in an analysis of the Battleground Poll results.

Independent voters criticize Democrats for not getting things done in general, he says. Democratic voters fault them for not standing up to the administration on Iraq.

"A new era of cynicism may be dawning among voters," Mr. Tringali writes. "But that may suggest a tougher time for incumbents of both parties in 2008."


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