Are political labels losing their power?

An Observer story Wednesday asked an interesting question: Is this an election year when name-calling won't win votes?

Our answer: In some places, maybe. But most voters don't pay much attention to detailed statements on issues. A few labels, starting with the party label, provide all the information they want. That's especially true in districts drawn to heavily favor one party or the other.

However, a growing number of voters want more than that. Here are two recent signs of the shift:

In North Carolina and many other states, independents are the fastest-growing segment of the electorate. Party label may mean something to them, but it doesn't mean everything. They're the swing voters, who go one way or the other according to the appeal of the candidates or the clash of issues.

In some traditionally Republican districts, Democrats have won recent elections: a Mississippi congressional seat; a Louisiana congressional seat that Republicans had held since 1975; former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's seat in Illinois – a district Republicans had won in 37 of the last 38 elections.

One reason is George W. Bush's unpopularity. Under his leadership, the nation is at war in two countries, the economy is limping, mortgage foreclosures are soaring, middle-class incomes are stagnant, the dollar is weak and the prices of gasoline and food have skyrocketed.

Michael Steele, chairman of GOPAC, a group whose reason for being is to elect Republicans, knows that. He told the Observer's Jim Morrill that Republicans “lacked the brand power” to win on party label alone.” He urged candidates to “come to the table with a better game.”

In a recent article, Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, cited a Washington Post poll showing “on every single topic” his party trailed the Democrats on which party can handle an issue better.

He wrote, “Americans now believe that Democrats can handle the deficit better (52 to 31), taxes better (48 to 40) and even terrorism better (44 to 37),” he wrote. He called it a “catastrophic collapse of trust in Republicans.”

Many voters are coming to believe the nation needs fewer ideologues and more problem-solvers. And one of the biggest problems is partisan gridlock in Washington caused by politicians who spend too much time calling each other names..