For Democrats, a Troubling Culture Gap
By Dan Balz
Dissatisfaction over the war in Iraq, the economy and rising health care costs might spell trouble for Republicans, but a study by Democratic strategists warns that their party's failure to connect with voters on cultural issues could prevent Democratic candidates from reaping gains in upcoming national elections.
Democrats have expressed bewilderment over Republican gains among lower-income, less-educated voters, saying they are voting against their economic self-interest by supporting Republican candidates. But the new Democracy Corps study concludes that cultural issues trump economic issues by a wide margin for many of these voters -- giving the GOP a significant electoral advantage.
The study is based on focus groups of rural voters in Wisconsin and Arkansas and disaffected supporters of President Bush in Colorado and Kentucky. The good news for Democrats: All the groups expressed dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and with the leadership of the president and the GOP-controlled Congress.
Then came the bad news: "As powerful as the concern over these issues is, the introduction of cultural themes -- specifically gay marriage, abortion, the importance of the traditional family unit and the role of religion in public life -- quickly renders them almost irrelevant in terms of electoral politics at the national level," the study said.
Many of these voters still favor Democrats on economic issues. But they see the Democrats as weak on national security, and on cultural and moral issues, they view Democrats as both inconsistent and hostile to traditional values. "Most referred to Democrats as 'liberal' on issues of morality, but some even go so far as to label them 'immoral,' 'morally bankrupt,' or even 'anti-religious,' " according to the Democracy Corps analysis.
Democrats Karl Agne and Stan Greenberg, who conducted the focus group, said Democrats need a reform-oriented, anti-Washington agenda to overcome the culture gap. At this point, Democrats are in no position to capitalize if there is a clear backlash against Republicans. "No matter how disaffected they are over Republican failures in Iraq and here at home," they said, "a large chunk of white, non-college voters, particularly in rural areas, will remain unreachable for Democrats at the national level."