Martin Frost: Republican Free-Fall

I don’t generally write about public opinion polls because there are so many of them during an election cycle. And, after all, they are merely a snapshot at a moment in time.

However, there was one released recently which caught my eye. It was a poll of rural voters conducted by the Democratic firm Greenberg, Quinlan Rosner in consultation with the Republican media firm Greener and Hook for the Center for Rural Strategies. The results were dramatic and they weren’t good for the Republican Party entering the 2008 elections.

Rural communities have been the bedrock of Republican victories nationwide in recent years. In 2004, President Bush carried rural America by a 19-point margin. Republicans won the congressional vote in rural areas in 2004 by a 10-point margin.

In 2006 rural America moved away from the Republicans, splitting the votes almost evenly in congressional races (51 percent for Republican candidates and 48 percent for Democratic candidates.

The new poll shows that trend away from Republicans continuing. According to recent polling data, rural voters favor a generic Democratic candidate for president by a margin of 46 percent to 43 percent. Further, rural voters favor Democratic candidates for Congress by 46 percent to 44 percent in named trial heats (the incumbent of whichever party is pitted against a generic foe of the other party).

Even more discouraging for Republicans was that President Bush’s 2004 approval rating of 54-43 percent fell to 44-52 percent even though rural voters still identify themselves as “conservative” when asked about their political philosophy.

In other words, Republicans are in free-fall in areas they must win in order to have a chance in 2008 presidential and congressional races. Democrats win inner city areas, some of the suburbs are competitive and Republicans must hold the rural parts of the country by a significant margin to be in the ballgame.

If these trends continue, this is a man-bites-dog story.

Let’s look inside this poll data. A major part of the 2008 Republican congressional strategy to make significant gains in the U.S. House of Representatives is to take back seats that switched from Republican to Democratic in 2006.

Looking only at districts in rural areas that switched parties in 2006, the Democratic margin grows to 56-34 percent. This includes districts such as Kansas 2 won by Nancy Boyda, North Carolina 11 won by Health Shuler and Iowa 2 won by Dave Loebsack.

There is other bad news for Republicans inside this poll. Favorability ratings for potential Republican presidential candidates such as Fred Thompson (22 percent favorable and 18 percent unfavorable) and Mitt Romney (16 percent favorable and 27 percent unfavorable) are not impressive.

Republicans can take heart that Hillary Clinton fares even worse (31 percent favorable and 52 percent unfavorable).

Responses to other questions jump off the page.

When asked, overall, which party do you think does a better job when it comes to paying attention to rural issues, the Democrats or the Republicans, respondents to the polls said Democrats, 45 percent, and Republicans, 33 percent.

Another question that should give Republicans real heart burn was as follows: “I want my member of Congress to vote for measures that will force the president to change policies and reduce troop levels in Iraq” (50 percent) or “I want my member of Congress to vote against measures that could undermine the president’s policies in Iraq” (42 percent).

This is in a part of the country where people call themselves conservative, where 55 percent own guns, where 49 percent of respondents say they are either fundamentalist Christians, evangelical Christians or Charismatic/Pentecostal and where 75 percent of the respondents say that either a family member, friend or someone they know has served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

To paraphrase an old cliché, with friends like these, the Republicans don’t need any enemies.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Flanigan and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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