The working assumption of many political commentators in Washington is that politics is more polarized than it has been in decades and that it’s the Republican Party’s rightward drift that’s to blame. The evidence bears this out—in part. But it also suggests a more complex story. First, the electorate has polarized. Over the past two decades, the public’s ideological self-description has changed significantly.
Unless something dramatic happens—fast—the general election will soon be upon us, with Mitt Romney as the Republican nominee, and President Obama fighting for a second term. But if the primary season has proven largely predictable, the next phase of the presidential campaign will likely have more than a few surprises in store. Romney and Obama will be competing on a playing field more polarized along partisan and ideological lines than at any time in recent history.
What are the odds that President Obama wins reelection? Generally incumbents running for their party's second presidential term fare pretty well, as Alan Abramowitz notes. If the economy continues to recover, Obama would be a prohibitive favorite. But Sean Trende at the right-leaning Real Clear Politics paints a darker picture of Obama's reelection chances. Trende's basic thesis, culled from a very few data points, is that Obama is a kind of post-partisan figure whose popularity runs ahead of his electoral success. It could be true, I suppose.
(Join John B. Judis and Richard Just at 1 p.m. on January 20 for a livestream discussion about the Republicans' return.) In 1960, the political scientist Clinton Rossiter began his classic text, Parties and Politics in America, with the following memorable words: “No America without democracy, no democracy without politics, no parties without compromise and moderation.” Rossiter saw U.S.
Earth to House Democrats: It’s time to push the panic button. But don’t take my word for it; consider the evidence. Exhibit A: One of the country’s savviest political scientists, Emory’s Alan Abramowitz, has just published an analysis that says the GOP will pick up 39 seats in the House this November. On the good news side for Democrats, Abramowitz finds more safe seats this year than in 1994 (145 versus 114) and fewer that are marginal (42 versus 55) or that lean Republican (69 versus 87). And there are only 15 open seats this year in Republican-leaning districts, versus 24 in 1994.
Political scientist Alan Abramowitz compares 2010 to 1994 by the number of incumbent vs. open seats and controlling for the partisan tendencies of the districts, and finds that the battle for control of the House could be razor-thin: While the total number of Democratic House seats is the same today as in 1994, changes in the demographic composition and geographic distribution of the electorate over the past 16 years have resulted in an increase in the number of strongly Democratic House districts.
Political scientist Alan Abramowitz has done a fascinating pair of studies of candidate ideology and Senate races. The first produces a somewhat intuitive finding: all things being equal, a more conservative Republican, based on voting record, is more likely to lose a Senate race than a more moderate win. In other words, moving further away from the center carries a political cost. (Obviously, the more conservative the state, the more conservative the voting record a Republican can safely hold.) So far this makes perfect sense.
The daily commentary about the Obama era has largely overlooked a trend that is now unmistakable—namely, the growing conservative sentiment in this country that goes well beyond the tea-party rallies and Glenn Beck’s rants. Gallup offered the first piece of compelling evidence. On January 7, 2010, it reported that self-identified conservatives had increased from an average of 37 percent of the electorate in 2008 to 40 percent in 2009.
In political circles, Republicans and Democrats alike have begun comparing the 2010 election with the "revolution" that handed both the House and the Senate to the GOP in 1994. But how applicable is that analogy, really? On the surface, the comparison is plausible. In 1994, as now, a charismatic outsider took office amid general unhappiness with the record of his Republican predecessor. Then, as now, the president decided to make health care reform a signature issue despite widespread concerns about the economy, taxes, and federal budget deficits.