Can GOP Voters Spoil the Dem Race?

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(l. to r.): Shannon Stapleton / Reuters; Bill Pugliano / Getty

Rush Limbaugh, right.

As if Democrats didn't have enough problems deciding upon their presidential nominee this year, now they must contend with the possibility that Republicans are deliberately crossing party lines to prolong the bitterly contested race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In recent weeks, conservative talk radio stars Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham have urged loyal listeners to vote for the much-despised Clinton in open Democratic primaries so as to prevent Obama from sealing the nomination, and there are some indications that their calls have already been heeded in states like Texas and Mississippi.

Even in the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania, where the April 22 primary is closed to independents and Republicans, there are signs that some Republicans are going so far as to switch their party registration by the March 24 deadline to participate in what Limbaugh has dubbed "Operation Chaos." In the last five months, there has been a 2.2% increase in the number of registered Democrats in Pennsylvania versus a tiny dip of 0.12% in Republican numbers. Veteran Pennsylvania pollster Terry Madonna expects some 100,000 new Democrats to vote on April 22, about 5% of the total expected to vote. In historic Gettysburg, Adams County Elections Supervisor Monica Dutko told the local newspaper, The York Daily Record, she was a seeing an unprecedented steady stream of switchers, some of whom volunteered they were changing registration from Republican to Democrat at the urging of Limbaugh.

Madonna, however, believes most of those new Dems will go for Obama, which goes against the Limbaugh conspiracy theory. It is also exactly what the upstart candidate himself has been working toward. Obama, who until recently was winning the lion's share of Republican votes in open Democratic primaries, is running radio ads in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia calling on voters to register as Democrats this week.

The first clue that Republicans might be making this kind of mischief came in the crucial Texas primary on March 4, a contest that most observers claimed Clinton had to win — along with Ohio — to keep alive her hopes for the nomination. Dave Mann, a political writer for the progressive Texas Observer, was driving to Fort Worth on that primary day when he heard various callers to the Laura Ingraham radio show claiming they had followed her and Limbaugh's call. One even admitted he would now have to go to confession and repent his sins. As he listened, Mann dismissed the idea that Republicans would have a significant impact on the Democratic outcome in Texas.

But the next day, after examining the exit polls from Texas and earlier states, he changed his mind. "As Republican participation increased, Hillary got more votes," Mann said. Some of them came from Allison Cavey's family. "My whole family actually voted for Hillary in the Texas primaries and we are all McCain supporters," said Cavey, 32, a Dallas resident who works for a medical software company. "We all thought it would be easier to beat Hillary in the fall. Also, we all agreed that if for some reason a Democrat won the election we would be better off with Hillary than Obama... scary thought!"

In both Ohio and Texas, Republicans and independents were a higher percentage of the votes than in other states. "Based on past results, you would think that favors Obama, who has done well in 'open' Democratic primaries where Republicans can cross over on election day," Mann said. Obama won among California independents 58-32%; Virginia Republicans went for him 72-23; and he won Missouri Republicans 75-21. But in Texas and Ohio the two Democrats split the Republican/independent vote. It appears "the Hillary Republicans cost Obama Texas," Mann said, adding that without detailed vote analysis and interviews it is difficult to say for certain. The Mississippi results a week later confirmed the trend. "There was a complete reversal," Mann said, and Obama was now losing Republicans and independents two to one to Clinton. "Without a doubt, Rush, and to a lesser extent me, had some effect on the Republican turnout," Ingraham told Fox News. "When you look at those exit polls, it is really quite striking."

Proving that claim is still not easy. Prior to Texas primary day, longtime political numbers cruncher Royal Masset, a former G.O.P. state party political director, dismissed the notion of a talk radio impact as "hogwash" and "urban myth." But during the two-week early voting period, down ballot Republican officeholders were nervous as they watched a record number of early voters ask for Democratic ballots, even in traditionally red counties. On election day, poll officials reported record requests for Democratic ballots in the reddest areas of the state. In Collin County, just north of Dallas where there is not a single Democratic officeholder, more voters chose to cast Democratic ballots — some 72,543 — than had voted in the November election for John Kerry, who got 69,000 votes. In 2000, only 3,735 voted in the Democratic primary, and the number was not much higher in 2004, some 6,493. "I can't put my finger on it," Dennis Simmons, a political scientists at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said on election day as he saw red counties recording big blue turnouts.

After looking over the election day numbers in detail, Masset concluded that half a million Republicans had voted in the Democratic primary, but that many had done it not to support Clinton, as urged to by Limbaugh, but for Obama. In Collin County, for example, 57% voted for Obama, but declined to cast a vote in down ballot races. Only 41,894 — a dropoff of 43% — voted in a competitive Democratic U.S. Senate primary race.

"Those 500,000 Republicans who voted in the Democratic party couldn't even bring themselves to vote for a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senator," Masset said. He believes some crossed over at the urging of talk radio, but more crossed over to vote for Obama, caught up in the excitement of a horse race; still, only detailed follow-up polling might provide more insight into the Republican crossover votes.

Not all pollsters agree with Masset's analysis. Citing his respect for both Masset and Limbaugh, Republican pollster Michael Baselice said his examination of the numbers leads him to believe the number of Republicans participating in the Texas primary this year was similar to past primary elections. "The bigger story," Baselice said, "is how many people came out and voted in a primary for the first time." In Dallas County 58% of the voters had never voted in either party's primary, while in Harris County, home to Houston, an astounding 64% of the primary voters had no primary voting history record. Obama won in those two large urban areas.

But while pollsters crunch the numbers, Limbaugh is relishing the Democratic battle. On primary day in Mississippi he told listeners: "I'm not going to tell Republicans to go over there and vote, because I don't think I have to anymore. I think everybody understands here. But I want Obama to win this tonight. I want Obama to win Mississippi. I want Obama to win everything 'til we get to Pennsylvania. Then it's a different ballgame. Then we start being 'un-American' again, to quote liberals," Limbaugh said laughing. "Then we start to sabotage all over again. The key about that, though, is you've gotta be registered with the party you intend to vote in Pennsylvania by March 24th. That's early. That's almost a month before the election date, which is April 22nd. So be thinking about that, folks."

Other talk radio hosts have taken up the cause. In Oregon, where voters must register by party by April 29 to vote in the May 20 primary, conservative talk radio host Victoria Taft has been pushing Republicans to re-register as "dummocrats." Election officials are seeing an increase in switchers, but voters' motives may not be divined until the Oregon exit polls are released. Meanwhile, Limbaugh opened his program Wednesday with a victory cry: "Operation Chaos is exceeding all objectives... this is just fabulous." Dubbing the Obama-Clinton face-off a "soap opera," Limbaugh says he will carry his campaign through to the final primaries in early June.

"I want our party to win. I want the Democrats to lose," Limbaugh said. "They're in the midst of tearing themselves apart right now. It is fascinating to watch. And it's all going to stop if Hillary loses."

—with reporting by Sean Scully/Philadelphia