WASHINGTON – Voters in recent surveys are more frequently describing themselves as Republicans (search), a shift that could affect November elections up and down the ticket if it continues.
"In some measure, it's a reflection of the great success of the Republican campaign in late August and early September," said Andrew Kohut, a director of thePew Research Center for the People & the Press (search). "Many of the people who considered themselves independents may be feeling better about the Republican Party."
A review of national polls after the Republican National Convention (search) found a slight shift in the number of people who described themselves as Republicans compared with the number who said they were Democrats. Polls after the Democratic National Convention, showed strength for Democratic nominee John Kerry and the Democrats.
For example, an August AP-Ipsos poll had 50 percent self-described Democrats or those who leaned Democratic and 44 percent Republican or those leaning that way. In the September AP-Ipsos poll, 50 percent were Republican or leaned toward the GOP, and 43 percent were inclined to call themselves Democrats.
"There's a hidden Republican vote that came out after Sept. 11, faded and appears in the weeks since the Republican National Convention to have emerged again," said Thomas Riehle, president of Ipsos-Public Affairs.
Attitudes about party identification tend to shift back and forth over time, said Robert Shapiro, a Columbia political science professor who specializes in public opinion.
"The GOP may have peaked with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and the GOP convention," Shapiro said.
The Swift Boat veterans charged Kerry didn't earn his Vietnam War medals for heroism -- charges that were not substantiated.
The number of people calling themselves Democrats and Republicans drew roughly even in late 2003 after decades when more people said they were Democratic. Since that time, the advantage shifted slightly back toward Democrats until late summer, pollsters say.
GOP strategists seize on recent gains in self-described Republicans as a foreshadowing of gains in November.
"It has huge significance since elections are moving more and more to the motivation of partisans," said Matthew Dowd, a senior strategist for President Bush's campaign. "Right now, we have an advantage. But I think we'll end up about even. That was my best hope a year ago."
GOP pollster Bill McInturff said a slight shift toward Republicans that holds up through Election Day, could make a big difference.
"If you start changing party identification by 3 to 5 percent, all of a sudden a thousand votes could tilt the other way," he said.
Democrats say it's only temporary.
"We're already seeing it start to recede," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "This is nothing like 1994."
She was referring to the elections a decade ago when Republicans rode a wave of voter discontent to take control of Congress.
Democratic consultant Dane Strother said it's too early to tell if the shift will hold up, adding: "Don't read too much into a few polls."
The increased Republican strength could further complicate the task of the Democrats this election. Population shifts toward the South and West over the last decade have shifted about a dozen congressional seats -- and electoral votes -- generally favoring Republicans.
Kerry could win every state taken by Gore in 2000 and would have just 260 electoral votes, 10 short of winning the presidency. Gore lost to Bush by five electoral votes, 271-267.