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GOP Faces Challenges on Economic Policy, Party Unity

September 3, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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As the GOP gears up for general election, the party faces challenges on economic policy and uniting its base around John McCain's White House bid. Analysts Andy Kohut and Amy Walter examine the challenges ahead for the Republicans.
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RAY SUAREZ: For that, we turn to Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press; and Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of the Hotline, National Journal’s political daily.

Andy, you have some research on where things stand, for instance, with women, for with whom Republicans have often had a problem.

ANDREW KOHUT, President, Pew Research Center: And they continue to have those problems. The gender gap is alive and well. By a 26 percent to 41 percent margin, women self-identify as Democrats, not Republicans. And that’s a 5 percentage point drop over the past four years in identification with the Republican Party.

Among men, it’s pretty evenly divided, 30 percent to 33 percent, 30 percent for the Republicans and 33 percent for the Democrats, but the split between men and women is pretty big.

And we see that the image of the Republican Party among women has really taken quite a hit. And there’s a pattern that suggests the Bush years, the impact of the Bush years, men continue to think of the Republican Party as better for terrorism, and better for foreign policy, and better on taxes, the things that Bush has really pushed.

But for women, the Republican advantage is gone. It’s not there on those issues. And, most importantly, we see now that on the issues that are prominent today — the economy, health care, energy — among women, the Republicans are far behind the Democrats, by 33 percent to 57 percent, which party you have most confidence in on the economy, a 24-point gap; on health care, it’s 24 percent to 61 percent favoring the Democrats; on energy, 20 percent to 62 percent.

So the Republican Party really has quite a disadvantage on the most important issues of the day among female voters, and more so than four years ago.

McCain less conservative than party

RAY SUAREZ: But, Amy, how predictive are those numbers, especially in a year -- we had Governor Swift here a few minutes ago, who said John McCain is a different kind of Republican, and some of that baggage doesn't apply to him, and certainly, with Sarah Palin on the ticket, it won't.

AMY WALTER, Editor-in-Chief, The Hotline: There's no doubt that what John McCain has been able to do thus far in the campaign is over-perform where a traditional Republican would be right now. I mean, when you look at a generic ballot test, you ask, "Would you like a Democrat or Republican elected to office?"

John McCain is much higher than where a generic Republican would be right now because he's not seen as a generic Republican. He doesn't have the brand that's sort weighing him down. So that's very helpful for him.

What we saw in our own poll -- our Diageo-Hotline poll was that Obama got something of a bounce out of Denver and where he got the biggest bounce was with women.

Now, the question, of course, is, did he just simply consolidate women who were sitting over with Hillary Clinton or sitting in the undecided column, or did he really break into this group of people that John McCain needs, too, to try to sway, these independent women, these women who in 2004 we called security moms, right?

They leaned on domestic issues, as Andy was saying, to Democrats, but on the more important issue, in their minds, of security, they went to Bush. And that ultimately made the decision for them.

RAY SUAREZ: There are even splits inside the Republican Party, aren't there, Andy, even with the unity that we heard from our two guests earlier?

ANDREW KOHUT: For the very reason that Amy mentioned. I mean, when you ask Republicans to rate their ideology, they put themselves out to the right and they put John McCain to the middle.

And as a consequence, you have Republicans, only a third of Republicans saying that the party is doing -- the leaders of the party are doing a good job of representing their values, the traditional values of the Republican Party: tax cuts and promoting social conservative values.

Four years ago, it was 61 percent -- not a third -- saying that the party was doing a good job. So there is a sense of a lack of unity in the party, and there is a sense that the leadership doesn't quite fit with traditional Republican values.

Republicans must look outside party

RAY SUAREZ: But does that kind of number make an opportunity for McCain and the Republicans this time around to look outside self-identified Republicans for votes?

AMY WALTER: Well, and there's no doubt, because they have to. And it's actually the Pew Research Center that told us a couple of weeks ago that there are fewer people now identifying as Republicans than -- for how long has it been, years, right?

ANDREW KOHUT: For years.

AMY WALTER: That number -- yes.

ANDREW KOHUT: The gap is...

AMY WALTER: ... larger than...

ANDREW KOHUT: ... is larger than it's been in 20 years.

AMY WALTER: So he can't actually go and just run up the score with Republicans like George Bush was able to do in 2004, because there aren't as many people who see themselves as Republicans. You have to go out and get those independent leaners.

Now, for Democrats, the number of people who identify as Democrats is a little bit higher, but it's really the people who identify as independents that's grown the most significantly. That's why you're going to see so much attention from both these campaigns right on that group of voters.

Everybody is talking about being a maverick. Everybody wants to talk about being a change agent. These are a group of voters, these swing independent voters, who are embittered about Washington, feel very frustrated with the direction of the country, and want to see somebody who they think is going to take on the establishment.

RAY SUAREZ: And, very quickly, what does the performance of the economy in the very near term -- if people feel bad in September and October, will that sway what they've been thinking for the whole year?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, I mean, I think it re-frames what were once four years ago security moms the question of what's important. What's important, what's at the top of the list, to a much greater extent than four years ago, are the economic issues.

And there, the Democrats are dominant. The Republicans are way behind. And you see the biggest problems that people -- when we say, "What worries you about John McCain?" They say, "His economic policies."

RAY SUAREZ: Amy, on the economy?

AMY WALTER: I think it's exactly right. I think it's hard to change. This is like a freight, you know, that's already kind of gone on its way. You can't turn it around halfway.

People's frustrations about the economy, I think, are pretty well-set. The question is, who do they see as able to deal with that problem?

RAY SUAREZ: Amy Walter and Andrew Kohut, thank you both.

Party going on the attack

JIM LEHRER: Yes, thanks, Ray.

And before we go, back to Gwen Ifill on the floor.

Gwen?

GWEN IFILL: Hi, Jim.

Well, as Amy and Stu were just saying, I think you can listen for some key words in all these speeches tonight, the words "independent" and the words "Barack Obama."

They're going to go on the attack. They're going to play to those women voters, to some of those undecided voters, try to make the point that finally Sarah Palin is not only worthy to be vice president, but then set the table for John McCain to come in here tomorrow night triumphant and try to -- and accept the nomination for the presidency.

The roll call of the states, which will actually formally nominate both the president and vice president, doesn't happen until late tonight when you hear all those wonderful salutes to individual states. And that will run until in the early hours of the morning.

But the first thing they're trying to do to create on this floor tonight and whip up these delegates is to create a sympathy backlash on behalf of Sarah Palin. And that's what we should be watching for tonight, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Thank you very much, Gwen.