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David Epstein

David Epstein

Posted May 3, 2009 | 11:56 AM (EST)

Reality Check on Specter and PA Voters


Just a quick word on Specter's dropping out of the Republican party to avoid a primary challenge that he might well lose. The Republicans have been playing up this angle of the story, not only to emphasize Specter's narrow political motives for the switch as opposed to broad disagreement with what the Republican party has come to stand for, but also to imply that Spector's move proves he's afraid of rejection by Pennsylvania voters.

That's fine, except that the last sentence should read "he's afraid of rejection by Pennsylvania *Republican* voters" -- i.e., those who would vote in the Republican primary. In fact, given that his erstwhile opponent Pat Toomey (whom Specter beat 51-49 in the 2004 primary) is now running unopposed and will probably get the nomination, Specter will indeed face off against Toomey again, but in the general election rather than the primary. And here, Spector seems right now to be odds-on favorite to retain his seat.

The logic is clear in this new poll of party ID, showing that Republican registration has dropped 7% in the past five years in PA, while Democratic registration has held steady. Thus the Republican primary electorate has gotten smaller and, since most party switchers are moderates rather than extremists, more conservative. So sure, Specter might have lost the primary, but whoever comes out the winner in such a primary is more than likely to lose in Pennsylvania, a moderate state overall if there ever was one.

So the switch, once again, says more about the weakness and extremism -- or the weakness due to extremism, if you will -- of the Republican party than its leaders care to admit. Make no mistake about it; the Republican party will bounce back eventually. We live in a competitive two-party system that over time is balanced between the parties. But it's going to take a while for the GOP to recover from their present sorry state, and when it does, it will be with a new set of leaders, different in tone, experience, and values from those that sit atop the party now.