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November 5, 2010

The Election by the Numbers: The Electorate Moves Right

Many Democrats and liberals will try and console themselves by saying that the election results were not precipitated by a rejection of President Obama's agenda. Others will say that it was all about enthusiasm, and that the Republicans showed up at the polls while the Democrats did not. Some, such as the president himself, say that the problem was with the process they followed in passing their legislation, not the bills themselves. Those with an historical bent will brush it off by saying that this always happens in a president's first mid-term. Finally, there are those who say that it was because significant portions of the electorate were brainwashed by Fox News, or that the voters were just stupid, or some such.

None of these are satisfactory, and all are incorrect. At least the first set of reasons make a pretense at analysis. Blaming a media outlet or saying that voters are stupid is just plain anti-intellectual.

First, let's look at some recent first mid-term elections

Carter 1978
House -15
Senate +3

Reagan 1982
House -27
Senate 0

Bush 1990
House -8
Senate -1

Clinton 1994
House -54
Senate -8

Bush 2002
House +8
Senate +2

Obama 2010
House -61
Senate -6

So while the shellacking the Democrats took this time was not completely unique in that it was by and large matched by 1994, neither was it par for a president's first mid-term election cycle.

Even worse for the Democrats this time, they lose a huge number of state houses and governorships. Although most attention is on the national scene, local races are also a good barometer of what the electorate is thinking. If they split their vote one could say that they were divided in their loyalties, and while that certainly happened in some instances by and large the electorate voted Republican.

Polling Data

The best and most comprehensive article I've seen so far was one by William Galston, which I first saw on Real Clear Politics yesterday:

It's the Ideology, Stupid
The New Republic
William Galston
November 4, 2010

...Let's begin with the basics. In the midterm election of 2006, Democrats received 52.0 percent of the popular vote cast for House candidates, while Republicans received 45.6 percent. This year, projections indicate that the Republicans will end up with 51.8 percent, versus 45.1 percent for the Democrats--in short, a Republican gain of 6.2 percent and a Democratic loss of 6.9 percent since 2006.

One might hypothesize that these results reflect a selective partisan mobilization: Enthusiastic Republicans showed up to vote while depressed Democrats stayed home and pulled the covers over their heads. Not so. According to the 2006 exit poll, those who voted were 38 percent Democratic, 36 percent Republican, and 28 percent Independent. This year the split was very similar--36/36/28--which accounts for only a small portion of the popular vote shift.

Or maybe some Democrats were so disgruntled that they broke ranks and supported Republican candidates. No again: 93 percent voted for Democratic candidates in 2006; 92 percent in 2010. And by the way, 91 percent of Republicans for voted candidates of their own party in 2006, and 95 percent in 2010. Partisan polarization is alive and well.

What about age? The conventional wisdom before November 2 was that seniors enraged or terrified by changes in Medicare would turn out in droves to punish those who voted for health reform while young people disillusioned by Obama's failure to create the New Jerusalem would abstain. That did happen, but only to a modest degree. Voters of ages 18-29 constituted 12 percent of the electorate in 2006; 11 percent in 2010. Voters over 65 were 19 percent of the total in 2006; 23 percent in 2010--noticeable but hardly decisive. If 65 and overs had constituted the same share of the electorate in 2010 as in 2006, the Republicans' share would have declined by only .7 percent--about one-tenth of their actual gains.

We get more significant results when we examine the choices Independents made. Although their share of the electorate was virtually unchanged from 2006, their behavior was very different. In 2006, Democrats received 57 percent of the Independent vote, versus only 39 percent for Republicans. In 2010 this margin was reversed: 55 percent Republican, 39 percent Democratic. If Independents had split their vote between the parties this year the way they did in 2006, the Republicans share would have been 4.7 percent lower--a huge difference.

But why did they change? Here we reach the nub of the matter: The ideological composition of the electorate shifted dramatically. In 2006, those who voted were 32 percent conservative, 47 percent moderate, and 20 percent liberal. In 2010, by contrast, conservatives had risen to 41 percent of the total and moderates declined to 39 percent, while liberals remained constant at 20 percent. And because, in today's polarized politics, liberals vote almost exclusively for Democrats and conservatives for Republicans, the ideological shift matters a lot.

To complete the argument, there's one more step: Did independents shift toward Republicans because they had become significantly more conservative between 2006 and 2010? Fortunately we don't have to speculate about this. According to the Pew Research Center, conservatives as a share of total Independents rose from 29 percent in 2006 to 36 percent in 2010. Gallup finds exactly the same thing: The conservative share rose from 28 percent to 36 percent while moderates declined from 46 percent to 41 percent.

This shift is part of a broader trend: Over the past two decades, moderates have trended down as share of the total electorate while conservatives have gone up. In 1992, moderates were 43 percent of the total; in 2006, 38 percent; today, only 35 percent. For conservatives, the comparable numbers are 36 percent, 37 percent, and 42 percent, respectively. So the 2010 electorate does not represent a disproportional mobilization of conservatives: If the 2010 electorate had perfectly reflected the voting-age population, it would actually have been a bit more conservative and less moderate than was the population that showed up at the polls. Unless the long-term decline of moderates and rise of conservatives is reversed during the next two years, the ideological balance of the electorate in 2012 could look a lot like it did this year.

Granted,this analysis is between 2006 and 2010, not against 2008. One can argue both ways as to which comparison is more indicative of trends. But having worked for campaigns ranging from town to presidential elections, I can tell you from personal experience that comparing one type of election to another is an exercise in apples and oranges.

At any rate, summarizing the comparison, we find that:

  1. Turnout was not the key to Republican success
  2. Those who voted Democrat in the past mostly did so again this time
  3. Seniors did not turn out in greater numbers

  4. Although their share of the electorate was the same as in 2006, independents shifted dramatically from Democrat to Republican in their voting
  5. Independents became more conservative and less liberal
  6. The electorate as a whole has become more conservative and less liberal over the past twenty years

None of this is to suggest that a Republican is a shoo-in for president in 2012. If nothing else, we have seen that the voting public will turn on a dime from one party to another. What it does show is that Democrats and liberals are fooling only themselves if they persist in believing that the reason they lost wasn't because of the extreme liberal policies they pushed on us in the past two years.

Posted by Tom at November 5, 2010 9:30 AM

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The election showed that lies and pandering to fear work as campaign strategy. Republicans have done this far better than Democrats.

Negative ads mobilize the base and turn off the independents so they don't show up to vote.

I'll tell you this Tom. I stopped doing attack style, beat down the opponent stuff after 2004 locally because I was sick of being the one the party asked to do so while the leaders hid.

After that eelction there was nobody to write the letter to the editor or put out the attack piece. Other than strong incumbents, who almost lost this time to inferior candidates, we've lost them all.

Negative works. Democrats have to learn to do it better.

Posted by: Truth 101 at November 5, 2010 10:24 PM

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