LOS ANGELES, Nov. 18 (UPI) -- An analysis by United Press International of recently released results of 2002 national exit poll undermines some fashionable myths about why the Republican Party gained ground in last year's election for the House of Representatives.
Because the survey aggregation system of the now-defunct Voter News Service, providers of the lone national exit poll, crashed on Election Day 2002, no definitive data had been available on who voted for whom and why. Lacking hard numbers, pundits and strategists have pushed their pet theories.
Democrats have increasingly argued that the results show they must appeal more to "NASCAR dads," or as Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean more controversially phrased it, "guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks."
In contrast, Republicans have often claimed that the GOP victory stemmed from the party broadening its tent to attract more ethnic minorities and other growing demographic groups.
These conflicting explanations can now be tested. The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research assembled the records of 17,872 interviews of voters leaving the polls on Nov. 5, 2002, and had them reviewed by a panel of statisticians. They determined that "the 2002 data is of comparable utility and quality to past VNS exit polls," so Roper now sells the raw data.
UPI's analysis suggests that both popular theories for the GOP's 2002 improvement -- "NASCAR dads" and "minority outreach" -- are largely wrong.
In 2000, the Republican candidates for the House of Representatives outpolled the Democratic candidates by 49 percent to 48 percent. Last year, that margin grew to 51 percent vs. 45 percent, even though the president's party has historically lost ground in midterm elections.
Despite the overall gains, the GOP did worse in 2002 among rural and minority voters.
Surprisingly, the Republican increases of 2002 over 2000 stemmed primarily from the GOP strengthening its appeal to its traditional bases: whites, suburbanites, Protestants, the affluent, the well-educated, the non-union, the conservative and the middle-aged.
If these citizens need a snappy moniker like "NASCAR dads," they could be called "white bread voters."
Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation who is one of a handful of analysts to have crunched through this data, told UPI, "The demographic theme of the 2002 election for the Republicans was 'Round up the usual suspects,' and they did a good job at it. The concept that this was the year in which the GOP broke through to new blocs of voters is largely not true."
In previous recent elections, Republicans failed to dominate among high-income voters. In 2002, however, the GOP's share of those saying they make more than $100,000 per year rose from 55 percent to 64 percent. At the same time, the number of voters with six-digit incomes rose from 15 percent to 18 percent of the total. This growth among the affluent in both Republicanism and turnout was doubly beneficial to GOP candidates.
It's not clear if the administration's tax cuts accounted for the enthusiasm of the well-off. President George W. Bush's 2001 round of tax reductions and rebates proved broadly popular with voters of all income levels, including the poor, but the affluent who approved of the administration's tax cut were most likely to vote Republican. Eighty-one percent of those who backed the tax cuts and who make more than $100,000 annually voted for the GOP.
The GOP continued to rise in popularity in the South. But, it was also up in the East and Midwest, dropping only in the West, where support for the Iraq war was sparse.
Despite the Southern trend, the GOP's appeal was notably less populist last year than in 2000. Then, the economy was booming, which allowed cultural issues of importance to rural voters such as gun control to play a large role.
Republicans won for the first time in decades among those claiming to have post-graduate degrees. They even captured a majority of women with college or post-graduate degrees.
Teixeira said, "It's evident in the county-level data, as well: the GOP did better in 2002 than in 2000 in areas where people are more cosmopolitan, more socially liberal, places that had been trending Democratic in recent elections."
One area where the GOP did succeed in broadening its tent was in drawing more women. Ironically, now that political attention has shifted to "NASCAR dads," it turns out that the Republican victory in the House was fueled in good measure by a trend to the right among those once-trendy swing voters of the 1990s: "soccer moms." The GOP garnered an impressive 61 percent of the ballots of married suburban women with children.
Overall, the GOP narrowed the famous "gender gap" from 9 points to 5 percent. While, the party's share of the male vote went up from 54 percent to 55 percent, its percentage of the female electorate increased from 45 percent to 50 percent.
Female voters were more worried than males about the threats that emerged between 2000 and 2002: terrorism and recession. Frightening times may have encouraged conservatism among women.
Although the White House's campaign guru Karl Rove had been talking up the GOP's outreach efforts to minorities, his party's share of the non-white vote dropped from 25 percent in 2000 to 23 percent. That mattered little, however, because its share of the white-vote segment grew from 55 percent to 59 percent. Further benefiting the Republicans, the white portion of the electorate increased from 81 percent to 82 percent, even though the total population is becoming less white each year.
The result was that the GOP became more dependent upon white voters, with whites casting 92 percent of all votes for Republicans, up from 90 percent in 2000. That may prove troublesome for the GOP in the long run, but it didn't hurt much in 2002.