For a party that loves to hate the Clintons, Republican voters have cast an awful lot of ballots lately for Senator Hillary Clinton: About 100,000 GOP loyalists voted for her in Ohio, 119,000 in Texas, and about 38,000 in Mississippi, exit polls show.
A sudden change of heart? Hardly.
Since Senator John McCain effectively sewed up the GOP nomination last month, Republicans have begun participating in Democratic primaries specifically to vote for Clinton, a tactic that some voters and local Republican activists think will help their party in November. With every delegate important in the tight Democratic race, this trend could help shape the outcome if it continues in the remaining Democratic primaries open to all voters.
Spurred by conservative talk radio, GOP voters who say they would never back Clinton in a general election are voting for her now for strategic reasons: Some want to prolong her bitter nomination battle with Barack Obama, others believe she would be easier to beat than Obama in the fall, or they simply want to register objections to Obama.
"It's as simple as, I don't think McCain can beat Obama if Obama is the Democratic choice," said Kyle Britt, 49, a Republican-leaning independent from Huntsville, Texas, who voted for Clinton in the March 4 primary. "I do believe Hillary can mobilize enough [anti-Clinton] people to keep her out of office."
Britt, who works in financial services, said he is certain he will vote for McCain in November.
About 1,100 miles north, in Granville, Ohio, Ben Rader, a 66-year-old retired entrepreneur, said he voted for Clinton in Ohio's primary to further confuse the Democratic race. "I'm pretty much tired of the Clintons, and to see her squirm for three or four months with Obama beating her up, it's great, it's wonderful," he said. "It broke my heart, but I had to."
Local Republican activists say stories like these abound in Texas, Ohio, and Mississippi, the three states where the recent surge in Republicans voting for Clinton was evident.
Until Texas and Ohio voted on March 4, Obama was receiving far more support than Clinton from GOP voters, many of whom have said in interviews that they were willing to buck their party because they like the Illinois senator. In eight Democratic contests in January and February where detailed exit polling data were available on Republicans, Obama received, on average, about 57 percent of voters who identified themselves as Republicans. Clinton received, on average, a quarter of the Republican votes cast in those races.
But as February gave way to March, the dynamics shifted in both parties' contests: McCain ran away with the Republican race, and Obama, after posting 10 straight victories following Super Tuesday, was poised to run away with the Democratic race. That is when Republicans swung into action.
Conservative radio giant Rush Limbaugh said on Fox News on Feb. 29 that he was urging conservatives to cross over and vote for Clinton, their bÃƒÂªte noire nonpareil, "if they can stomach it."
"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."
He added, "I know it's a difficult thing to do to vote for a Clinton, but it will sustain this soap opera, and it's something I think we need."
Limbaugh's exhortations seemed to work. In Ohio and Texas on March 4, Republicans comprised 9 percent of the Democratic primary electorate, more than twice the average GOP share of the turnout in the earlier contests where exit polling was conducted. Clinton ran about even with Obama among Republicans in both states, a far more favorable showing among GOP voters than in the early races.
Walter Wilkerson, who has chaired the Republican Party in Montgomery County, Texas, since 1964, said many local conservatives chose to vote for Clinton for strategic reasons.
"These people felt that Clinton would be maybe the easier opponent in the fall," he said. "That remains to be seen."
Wilkerson added, "We have not experienced any crossover of this magnitude since I can remember."
In the Mississippi primary last Tuesday, Republicans made up 12 percent of voters who took a Democratic ballot - their biggest proportion in any state yet - and they went for Clinton over Obama by a 3-to-1 margin.
John Taylor, the GOP chairman in Madison County, said he toured various precincts and witnessed Republican voters taking Democratic ballots to vote for Clinton.
"Some people there that I recognized voting said, 'Hey, I'm going to vote in this primary this year, right now. But don't worry, in November I'll be back,' " Taylor said. "They were going to do some damage if they could."
Another popular conservative radio host, Laura Ingraham, who had also encouraged voters to cast ballots for Clinton, crowed about her apparent success the day after Ohio and Texas voted.
"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."
Some political blogs have suggested that the influx of Clinton-voting Republicans prevented Obama from winning delegates he otherwise would have, by inflating Clinton's totals both statewide and in certain congressional districts. A writer for the liberal blog Daily Kos estimated that Obama could have netted an additional five delegates from Mississippi.
It is also possible, though perhaps unlikely, that enough strategically minded Republicans voted for Clinton in Texas to give her a crucial primary victory there: Clinton received roughly 119,000 GOP votes in Texas, according to exit polls, and she beat Obama by about 101,000 votes.
Not everyone casting ballots for Clinton did so primarily to sink her, however. Brent Henslee, 33, a Republican who works at a radio station in Waco, Texas, wanted to keep Clinton in the race to expose more about Obama, whom he sees as more "fluff than substance."
"I'm not buying into all the Obama-mania, is the main reason I did it," he said. "A lot of these people don't know a thing about this guy and they're crazy about him. And I thought that maybe keeping Hillary alive will just shed some more light on the guy."
Of the nine remaining major contests, four - Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Oregon, and South Dakota - have "closed" primaries, which means only Democrats can participate.
If Republicans and conservative independents continue their tactical voting, it may be more likely in Indiana, Montana, and Puerto Rico, which allow anyone to vote, and possibly in North Carolina and West Virginia, which open their primaries to Democrats and independent voters.
"If you are a Republican you could pull a Democrat ballot and vote for the Democrat presidential candidate you think will stand the least chance of beating McCain in the fall general election," the assistant editor of the Greene County Daily World, in southwestern Indiana, wrote in a blog post earlier this month.
Meanwhile, Clinton, despite trailing Obama in delegates, is projecting confidence about her chances as the nomination race careens toward the April 22 Pennsylvania primary. The morning after her big wins in Ohio and Texas, she was asked on Fox News whether she had a message for Limbaugh.
"Be careful what you wish for, Rush," she said with a grin.
Scott Helman can be reached at email@example.com.
© 2008 The Boston Globe