- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

NEW YORK (AP) — One grew up in the South, convinced that Republicans were the voice of the “silent majority.” One settled in Kansas, loyal to the Democratic Party, just like everyone else she knew.

Both broke with the political faith of their families. This summer, each journeyed to the heart of their new political home. Their stories don’t grab the spotlight, but they are at the crux of an evolving electorate shaped by demographics, domestic politics and global events.

For political scientists and campaign strategists, the dynamics of party-switchers such as Shamin Rutledge and Gary Kendall offer a crucial glimpse into the nature and future of American politics.

Mrs. Rutledge, 39, of Wichita, Kan., never thought twice about voting Democrat.

“It was just understood, being African-American, in my family, that’s the way you voted,” she said.

Mrs. Rutledge, a saleswoman of pharmaceutical products, never questioned her duty. Until Bill Clinton, that is.

His moral failings hit home. She was married, a mother, and increasingly concerned with matters of faith.

“It was really an eye-opener to me,” she said. Concerns about abortion that she had kept to herself no longer could be ignored. “I really understood I was with the wrong party.”

Mr. Kendall, 55, of Charlottesville, is rooted in conservative values, shaped by parents who survived the Depression and World War II.

“I got out of school believing that Republicans were there to protect the silent majority,” Mr. Kendall said in July during the Democratic National Convention in Boston. “The average working person, the person who gets up in the morning, goes to work, pays their taxes, goes to church.”

That was until President Reagan’s second term. Since then, the small-town lawyer has become gradually convinced that Democrats best reflect his values. Now — with a war that he doesn’t believe in and a son who served in Afghanistan and Iraq — he’s passionately Democratic.

Middle-class people are “not the backbone of America anymore, they’re getting their backs broken,” Mr. Kendall said.

If there’s one way to predict the average person’s political affiliation, political scientists say, look at the family. Family history can foretell party loyalty, adolescent rebellion, even independent voting, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “People have to make these changes gradually.”

Mr. Sabato said political converts are becoming more likely, as the parties become more ideological and the breakdown of American families leaves more people without the community roots that define political identity.

Mrs. Rutledge and Mr. Kendall are a long way from the prominent officials who have broken with their parties and caught national attention this summer, from Georgia’s Democratic Sen. Zell Miller — who have a fiery speech Wednesday — to moderate Republicans, mostly former governors and senators, who took out an ad to criticize the Republican Party.

The prominent ones are out there to persuade others. The people on the convention floor, and across the country, are just trying to make up their minds.

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