03/26/2008 05:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Some Context on the Democratic Defectors

Brian Schaffner provides some helpful context for the Gallup "Democratic defector" results that we linked to earlier today. He notes a Pew Research Center survey from March 2000 that suggested similar fallout for George W. Bush as a result of his primary against John McCain.

Here are the key passages from the Pew report, starting with the lead paragraph:

The presidential primary season may prove to be a decisive factor in Campaign 2000, not only for who won, but for the way the winners emerged from the process in the eyes of the voters. Al Gore was clearly helped, and George W. Bush was just as clearly hurt. The vice president has improved his personal image, while making gains among two key groups whose support had eluded him last year, independents and men. In contrast, many people have come to dislike Bush personally, especially former supporters of John McCain. As a consequence, the Texas governor now trails Gore for the first time in a nationwide Pew Research Center survey, by 49%-43%....

Later, the report turned to the impact of the primaries:

Primaries Costly for Bush

Moreover, Gore leads Bush by a 51%-44% margin among voters who say they backed McCain during the primary process.(1) These McCain supporters are especially vocal critics of Bush as a person -- nearly half (48%) of those who support Gore point to Bush's personality as the thing they like least about him.[NOTE 1: Unless otherwise noted, former McCain and Bradley backers/supporters are those who say they strongly supported McCain/Bradley for their parties' nomination.]

But Gore's most important gains from supporters of McCain and Bradley come among independents who now disproportionately favor the vice president. In contrast, the party regulars have largely returned to the fold, with Republicans supporting Bush and Democrats supporting Gore.


Needless to say, that early Gore advantage did not persist. I'll let Schaffner blog the rest:

Eventually, many of those McCain backers likely returned to vote for Bush and most of the Bradley backers likely returned to vote for Gore. The hard feelings that existed shortly after the end of the primary eventually subsided as the party unified for the general election. It is likely the case that Obama and Clinton supporters would eventually return to the fold and support the Democratic nominee in the Fall as well. However, the key difference between 2000 and 2008 will be the timing. When McCain lost the nomination, Bush had between 7-8 months to court McCain's old supporters. The Democratic nominee will have less time to do the courting this year. The critical question is how much time will he or she have?

In the Gallup analysis, Frank Newport makes a similar point:

[I]t may be normal for some voters to claim early on in the process -- perhaps out of frustration -- that they will desert their party if certain things do not happen to their liking. And it may be equally likely that they fall back into line by the time of the general election. It is worth noting that in Gallup's historical final pre-election polls from 1992 to 2004, 10% or less of Republicans and Democrats typically vote for the other party's presidential candidate.

Incidentally, for those looking to test electability with these early snapshots, keep in mind that the Gallup analysis focuses solely on self-identified Democrats that say they vote in primaries. It does not cover to the ability of the two Democrats to attract independent or cross-over support from those who say they do not vote in Democratic primaries. On their late February survey, Pew observed that "Obama has much greater personal appeal to independent voters than does either McCain or Clinton," and Pew's Scott Keeter reported that roughly equal numbers of voters are Obama-not-Clinton or Clinton-not-Obama in matchups against John McCain. It would be interesting to replicate those calculations using the Gallup Daily data, although the fact that Obama gets 44% and Clinton 45% against McCain suggests that the rough parity in these defector/cross-over groups persists.

Of course, the larger point of the eight year old Pew numbers is that snapshots from March have a short half-life, so speculate with caution.