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Reagan Set the Standard for Switching Parties

May 1, 2010

Ronald Reagan liked to tell the story of how he became a Republican.

The former President was originally a liberal FDR Democrat – and it wasn’t until Dwight Eisenhower decided to run on the Republican ticket in 1952 that Reagan campaigned and voted for someone other than a Democrat for the office of President.

Reagan’s transformation from Democrat to Republican came full circle during the 1960 presidential election when he finally realized “the real enemy wasn’t big business, it was big government.”

Two years later he was campaigning for Richard Nixon in his unsuccessful attempt to become governor of California, near his home in Pacific Palisades. A woman in the audience asked the former President if he had changed his registration to Republican.

Reagan said, “Not yet”, but explained he intended to. “I’m a registrar,” the woman said, and she walked down the aisle, and placed a registration form in front of the former President.

Reagan signed it, and became a Republican on the spot, and then said to the audience, “Now, where was I?”

Former President Reagan switched parties long before he sought political office – and there was no doubt that his conversion was genuine and rooted in his political philosophy.

Recently, we’ve seen some modern-day politicians switch parties – however these have been circumstances of switching in mid-stream, and that’s a lot harder to pull off.  Voters are generally skeptical when someone they have previously elected as a Democrat switches to the Republican Party, and vice versa.

The convert will also find it difficult to be accepted by supporters of his/her new party, as it usually takes more than one election cycle for party activists to solidify their support behind a newcomer.

Two recent conversions have made national headlines, and are also examples of the pitfalls in switching political parties in the middle of an election cycle.

U.S. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Florida Governor Charles Crist switched  for the 2010 elections, and both are finding themselves struggling to be elected.

Senator Specter admitted that a major reason he switched to the Democrat Party was that his own polling showed he would not win the Republican primary against former Congressman Pat Toomey. The Pennsylvanian went on to say that he was more comfortable voting as a Democrat, yet most observers agree the real reason was political self preseveration.

Meanwhile, Republican Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who trailed his Republican primary opponent, Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate, just announced that he too, is leaving the GOP, and will run as an Independent in November.

Recent polling gives Governor Crist a better chance of winning in the general election because the vote will be divided among three major candidates. Yet he still trails Rubio and the Democrat nominee, and his chances as an Independent remain very slim.

Specter and Crist had previously announced they would remain as Republicans, and when asked, both promised to be a candidate in their primary elections. Now they are being dogged by their decision, and their credibility with the voters has been damaged in the process.

Switches parties in mid-stream is tricky to pull off. The good news is that voters have a way of sorting these things out – but unfortunately for Specter and Crist, self preservation in politics is rarely, if ever, rewarded.

Once again, former President Reagan, set the political standard, on how to do things right.

(Robb can be reached at