Illinois Sen. Barack Obama cinched the Democratic presidential nomination this week with the unprecedented help of an estimated 3 million Republican voters who cast ballots in their rival party’s primaries.
About 12 percent of Obama’s aggregate vote in presidential primaries came from people who normally align themselves with the GOP, based on a survey of 1,003 adults conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University.
About 5 percent of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton’s support came from Republicans.
The poll also found that Arizona Sen. John McCain, who won the Republican nomination in the early months of the primary season, received virtually no Democratic crossover votes.
“McCain didn’t need my vote since he already had the nomination locked up,” explained life-long Republican voter Jerry Maisel, 64, of Plano, Texas. “So I thought that this was my chance to be a spoiler with the Democrats. Barack Obama is the first Democrat I’ve ever voted for in a presidential race. Can’t say I enjoyed the experience.”
But like many of the Republicans interviewed in the poll, Maisel’s motives are complex. Since many conservatives are unenthusiastic about McCain, they’ve taken extraordinary interest in which Democrat wins the nomination. Maisel was fearful that Clinton might win.
“I just couldn’t see her in the White House,” Maisel said. “Obama’s still a Democrat. But he wouldn’t be the end of the world.”
Other Republicans came to an opposite conclusion.
“I voted for Clinton because she’s a little less dangerous than Obama. He’s 180 degrees from what he pretends to be,” said Dan Curtin, 58, of Marblehead, Mass.
“The Republicans really blew it this year. McCain is a twit. When you get into a fist fight and you don’t throw a punch, there’s a real chance that you’re going to get knocked out,” Curtin said.
And there’s widespread disillusionment with the performance of President George W. Bush, whose approval rating in the poll was only 62 percent among Republicans. Among all adults in the poll, his approval was just 29 percent.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever switched from the Republican to Democratic primary before. But these are changing times,” said Larry Farrell, 68, of Cincinnati, Ohio. “I’ve moved away from the strong Republican position because of what Bush did to slow stem cell research. That irritated the heck out of me. He’s being controlled by the evangelicals.”
The poll’s findings suggest that approximately 3 million Republicans cast ballots for Obama, Clinton or former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. That’s about 9 percent of the 35 million ballots cast for Democrats this year.
The poll found that about 35 percent of American adults identify themselves as either a “strong Republican” or an “independent voter leaning toward the Republicans.” Slightly more than 42 percent say they are strong or leaning Democrats and 23 percent are completely independent of party preference.
“There is a chance of fallout from both ends of the Republican Party this year. Yes, it’s unprecedented,” said Curtis Gans, director of the non-partisan Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University.
“The Republican Party has moved way to the right of the American center. The moderate, sensible Republicans found themselves without a home under President Bush. But in this upcoming election, a lot of really conservative Republicans don’t find McCain palatable. They may stay home or vote for somebody else,” Gans said.
The poll also found that party loyalty — whether to Republicans or Democrats — is generally on the wane.
Nearly half of the people interviewed said they believe political parties have become “less important today than they were in the past.” About 59 percent said their own feelings about the parties have changed and, by nearly a two-to-one margin said they’ve become less loyal rather than more loyal.
“There has been a general decline in partisan identification and in party registration,” said Gans. “Among the young, it is a simple disaffection with politics. And with the power of television, it has become easier to vote for the person rather than the party.”
The survey found that Obama enjoys a huge advantage over McCain among adults 18 to 24, voters attracted by his promises of change from traditional politics. McCain, who would be America’s oldest elected president, holds a slight lead over Obama among voters who are 65 and older.
Overall, the poll found that Obama was supported by 42 percent and McCain by 38 percent. About 20 percent said they are undecided, would vote for a third party candidate, or won’t vote at all.
The survey was conducted by telephone at Ohio University’s Scripps Survey Research Center from May 11-28. The poll was funded through a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation.
The overall survey has a margin of error of about 3 percentage points, although the margin is larger among subgroups. For instance, the margin of error on the question of how many Republicans voted for Obama is more than 5 percentage points.
The estimate that about 9 percent of Democratic primary voters were Republicans was based upon interviews with 285 Democratic primary voters. Based upon a subgroup this size, the rate of Republican participation could have been as low as 6 percent and as high as 12 percent.
However election experts said the 9 percent finding generally agreed with other analyses.
(Thomas Hargrove is a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service. Guido H. Stempel III is a professor emeritus at Ohio University.)