How Americans’ Shifting Political Ideologies Threaten the Democrats

by William Galston | July 28, 2010

In a recent post, Jonathan Chait rightly calls our attention to the Pew survey released July 16 that showed how voters rate political parties’ ideologies. While I agree with Chait’s interpretation of the data he cites, I want to underscore the significance of some other information in the survey—namely, where voters identify themselves in relation to the parties.

On the whole, 58 percent of voters see Democrats as liberal or very liberal, while 56 percent see Republicans as conservative or very conservative; no surprise there. But voters now place themselves much closer to the Republican Party than to the Democratic Party on this left-right continuum. Indeed, the ideological gap between the Democratic Party and the mean voter is about three times as large as the separation between that voter and the Republican Party. And, startlingly, the electorate places itself a bit closer to the Tea Party movement (which is well to the right of the Republican Party) than to the Democratic Party. All this represents a major shift from five years ago, when mean voters placed themselves exactly halfway between their ideological perceptions of the Democratic and Republican parties.

The Pew survey also shows that Democrats are far more ideologically diverse than Republicans. Twenty-four percent of Democrats describe themselves as conservative or very conservative, while only 5 percent of Republicans call themselves liberal or very liberal. Conversely, 65 percent of Republicans think of themselves as conservative or very conservative, while only 42 percent of Democrats self-identify as liberal or very liberal. This helps explain why 83 percent of Republicans see the Democratic Party as more liberal than they themselves are—while only 60 percent of Democrats place the Republican Party to the right of where they place themselves.

Shifts among Independents are especially notable. A Pew survey in June 2005 found that Independents considered the Republican Party to be twice as distant from them ideologically as the Democratic Party. Today, Independents see the Democratic Party as three times farther away than the Republican Party. In 2005, 51 percent of Independents thought that the Republican Party was more conservative than they themselves were, versus only 36 percent who thought that the Democratic Party was more liberal. Today, 56 percent of Independents see the Democratic Party as more liberal than they themselves are, compared to only 39 percent who see the Republican Party as more conservative. 

In May 2009, after Obama had taken office and the broad political debate had shifted away from social issues and national security toward the economy and federal regulation, Pew found that Independents had begun to move toward the Republican Party. This month’s survey suggests a continuation of this trend in Obama’s second year.

Three politically relevant conclusions follow from these data. First, Democrats’ greater diversity means that party leaders are bound to have more trouble managing their coalition than the Republicans will theirs. Second, the Independents who helped Democrats score a notable success in the 2006 midterm elections may well do the same for Republicans in 2010.

The third conclusion to be drawn from the poll is that, whether Democrats lose control of the Congress or remain in power with much narrower majorities, Obama’s challenge will resemble the one Bill Clinton faced after 1994—namely, reestablishing his standing among those voters outside of the Democratic base whose support spells the difference between retaining and losing a national majority. I’m not necessarily suggesting that Obama should do that the way Clinton did, by championing small-bore issues—such as school uniforms—designed to send reassuring messages to the electorate. But I am suggesting that he should bring comparable focus and clarity to the task of broadening his appeal beyond his core supporters… and organize his White House to maximize the chances that he can accomplish that task.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/william-galston/76631/democrats-republicans-popularity-new-demographics