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Clinton-Obama race spurs party switches

Many voters say they have made the switch to grab the chance to have a voice they never thought they'd have in a historic race.
Vote Switching
Talk radio host Victoria Taft, broadcasting from her KPAM studio in Milwaukie, Ore., asks her listeners to consider temporarily switching their party affiliation in order to vote for New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Oregon primary.Greg Wahl-stephens / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Matthew Buckingham, a stay-at-home father in Portland's suburbs and lifelong Republican, is fired up about voting for Sen. John McCain in November.

But on May 20, the date of Oregon's unexpectedly consequential presidential primary, Buckingham's choice for the primary is still up in the air: Should it be Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, or Sen. Barack Obama?

Like nearly 10,000 Oregonians — and thousands more voters in other late-primary states — Buckingham has temporarily switched his party affiliation in order to be able to vote in the red-hot Democratic primary.

"The bottom line is, this is the first Oregon presidential primary I have ever voted in my life that actually could matter, and I am not going to pass up that chance just because I am registered with the wrong party," said the 45-year-old Buckingham. "I want to make sure whoever gets in there, it is someone I can live with."

Many voters say they have made the switch to grab the chance to have a voice they never thought they'd have, in a historic race that conventional wisdom had predicted would be decided on Super Tuesday in February.

Some renegade conservatives, though, will admit to switching in order to drag out the Democratic primary as long as possible in the hope of bruising both candidates along the way.

'We don't know a stinking thing about him'
Talk radio hostess Victoria Taft, a familiar Republican voice in the Democratic-leaning Pacific Northwest, said that even in her wildest dreams, she never imagined urging her listeners to vote for Clinton.

But these days, Taft is firmly on the New York senator's bandwagon, along with national conservative talk radio heavyweights like Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham.

"I want to vet (Illinois Senator) Barack Obama more than Hillary," said Taft, whose daily program during prime evening drive-time reaches about 30,000 people. "We know what she is all about, but we don't know a stinking thing about him."

Her urging has resonated with listeners like Deborah Whisler, a Tigard-area retiree, who changed her registration from nonaffiliated to Democratic after hearing Taft on the radio.

"I almost can't say this without choking, but I'm going to vote for Hillary Clinton," Whisler said. "Just on the basis of finding out more about each candidate."

None of the major candidates reflects her views on immigration policy, Whisler said. Still, in November, she said she'll "hold my nose," and vote for McCain.

Honest vote or malicious purpose
In Oregon alone, in the past seven weeks, nearly 10,000 voters have refiled as Democrats, more than 1 percent of the state's 764,000 registered Democrats. More than 3,500 of them were Republicans; almost all of the rest had been nonaffiliated voters.

In Pennsylvania, where the primary is set for April 22, the Democrats have registered a staggering 235,000 new voters since last fall, pushing their numbers to more than 4.1 million for the first time. In West Virginia, which votes on May 13, the increase has come in the form of a swell in nonaffiliated voters, said Democratic Party executive director Tom Vogel, after the Democratic primary was opened to independents for the first time in recent history.

"We are sure there are Republicans who are switching to vote in our primary, whether they honestly want to vote or if they have more malicious purposes to try to get the candidate of their choice to run against," Vogel said.

Elections officials in two other late-voting states with closed primaries, North Carolina and South Dakota, said there was so far no evidence of widespread party switching there. And in Kentucky, where the primary is scheduled for May 20, there won't be any chance for party-hoppers, thanks to a state law specifically designed to prevent so-called "party-raiding."

"If you want to change your party affiliation to be eligible to vote in the upcoming primary, you have to change it by December 31st," said Les Fugate, a deputy secretary of state in Kentucky — a date that came months before anyone in Kentucky dreamed their primary votes could matter.

Conservative concerns?
In Ohio and Texas, the two key states widely acknowledged to have kept Clinton's presidential bid alive when she won their March 4 primaries, Republicans and independents voted for Clinton and Obama in roughly equal numbers, helping to solidify her wins.

That was a departure from previous states with "open primaries," like Virginia and Missouri, where anyone can vote for any candidate despite their affiliation, in which Obama had won handily among Republicans and independents.

Nick Shapiro, Obama's communications director in Oregon, said that if an organized effort to strategically cast conservative votes for Clinton did exist, it was a sign that "conservative Republicans are worried that Barack Obama can unite this country, and will get support from not only the Democrats, but independents and Republicans and propel him into the White House."

Isaac Baker, a spokesman for the Clinton campaign, however, called it "encouraging that independents and Republicans are switching to the Democratic Party, and joining our call to dramatically change course."

Record-breaking turnout
The all-time high for registered Democrats in Oregon came in November 2004, when a serious get-out-the-vote effort for that year's presidential race pushed the total above 820,000. But both campaigns expect record-breaking turnout for the May 20 primary, mirroring other states.

Oregon voters around the state offer a variety of reasons for switching.

The chance to participate was key for 19-year-old Bryant Stegall, a part-time student from Southern Oregon who said he's leaning toward Obama. If Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, he said, he'd probably flip back to the Republican McCain.

Seventy-year-old Mary Nelke, of Ashland, Ore., said she made the switch because she's fallen for Obama and the promise she hears in his voice.

"Whether he is a Democrat or a Republican, he is our hope for the future," she said. "The economy is desperate, we need to make peace with the world. I am a grandmother — I look, and I think, I have to stand up and do what I think is right."

As for Taft — no relation to William Howard Taft, the one-time GOP president from Ohio — she said she's hearing every day from more voters who plan to heed her call.

"If she (Clinton) gets a bump in Oregon, she may just be on to Puerto Rico," Taft said.

Puerto Rico votes June 1. Montana and South Dakota are the last Democratic contests on June 3.