In 2008, Democrats led Republicans by 14 percentage points (when voters who lean toward one party or the other were included in the calculation). Even in years when Republicans won the presidency, including the Reagan landslide of 1984, Democrats enjoyed a voter preference advantage. Though not shown in the above chart, Democrats enjoyed similar advantages during midterm elections when the lost control of Congress or failed to retake control.
So why can't Democrats translate their clear advantage in voter preference into party victory? Aren't we a polarized nation where 90% or Democrats vote for Democrats and 90% of Republicans vote for Republicans? In short, no we're not. Though America's two political parties, and the party activists who set agendas are quite polarized, there is little evidence of polarization within the broader electorate (see my prior post on this).
As shown in Panel A of the following figure, in 1972 the ideological distribution of Democrats and Republicans was actually quite similar. Both parties were dominated by self-identified moderates – the Democratic distribution skewed slightly left and the Republican right.
On the 7-point ideology identification scale (with 1 representing extremely liberal and 7 extremely conservative, a score of 4 represented moderate) the mean score for non-activist Democrats was 3.88 compared to 4.59 for Republicans – a statistically significant difference. By 1996, the Republican electorate had shifted significantly to the right (mean value of 5.13) and Democrats had shifted slightly, though significantly to the left (mean value of 3.69). The distribution observed in 2008 is very much similar to that of 1996 for both parties. By 1996 a clear divergence between the two party coalitions is evident, but it is driven almost entirely by the Republican party’s move to the right.
But there's more the story and it's told in Panel B of the figure. In 1972, Democratic and Republican party activists differed significantly from non-activists, yet moderates were a sizable component of each group's activist base.
Interestingly, there was no statistically significant difference between the mean value of the Republican distribution for activists and non-activists in 1972. Among Democrats, however, the mean value of 2.89 for party activists was significantly to the left of non-activists. This pattern held through 2008.
Though the Republican party’s activist base has become more conservative, so has the party’s non-activist membership. In 2008 the mean score on the ideological scale for Republican activists was 5.50 – not significantly different from the 5.16 value for non-activists. Among Democrats, activists sported a mean value of 2.85 as compared to 3.64 for non-activist – a significant difference.
Since 1972, Republican party members – activists and non-activists alike – have become more conservative. Suggesting little disconnect between rank and file members of the party and its most committed members. Among Democrats, however, the shift to the left observed among party activists has resulted in a divide between more liberal activist members and more moderate rank and file members.
These changes in the party’s coalitions offer further explanation for the Democratic party’s electoral difficulties.
As shown in a prior post, the American electorate is not polarized along ideological lines. Though there has been some evidence of a slight rightward shift since 1972. Party activists, however, are very polarized, with Democratic activists well to the left of center and Republican activists well to the right. At first glance, this suggests party activists out of step with their party’s respective coalitions. But this is clearly truer for Democrats than for Republicans. The Democratic party’s coalition has shifted only slightly to the left, but remains well anchored around a core group of moderates. Party activists, however, are decidedly left of center.
A substantial share of the Democratic party’s coalition finds itself ideologically situated between the extremes of partisan activists on the left and the right. Simply stated, a Democratic party agenda tailored to liberal party activists is more likely to alienate a much broader segment of the Democratic coalition than would a Republican party agenda tailored to conservatives.
There is a greater disconnect between activists and voters in the Democratic party. Democrats have more to lose, with regard to potential voters, by following activists to the left than do Republicans by following a lead to the right. Given this ideological disconnect, one would expect less partisan attachment or party loyalty among Democratic voters – a weakening of partisanship.
In a separate posting later this week I will show that Democratic partisans are in fact less loyal to the party over time and more likely to disagree with the party on key issues of party faith.
In short, Democrats lose because the folks who set the agenda for the party are more out of step with rank and file membership than are the folks who set the agenda for the Republican party. For Republicans, there is strength and ideological cohesion on the right. Republicans win because there is little difference between party activists and rank and file members. Among Democrats, however, strength comes not from the left but from the center - that's where the parties core group of rank and file voters are and when the party strays left many of those voters defect.