Monday, August 22, 2011

Why Democrats Lose (or Why Republicans Win)

Do matter how you measure party preference, Democrats have enjoyed a consistent lead for over 60 years. According to data from the American National Election Studies that lead has fluctuated, but remains significant.

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.

So there is element one of the polarization story - party polarization among the broader, non-activist electorate, has been driven by Republican rank and file voters shifting right while Democratic rank and file members essentially stood still.

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.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Keep Checking the FreeStater Blog

I'd like to thank everyone for checking in with the PoliProf blog - for the next few weeks I will focus most of my efforts on the FreeStater Blog for St. Mary's College as we prepare for it's official roll out. So keep checking the FreeStater for news and commentary.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Pre-Election Day Predictions for VA, NJ, and NY-23

Last week I offered my assessment of the key 2009 elections one week out, I return as promised to offer predictions for tomorrow.

Virginia - It's all over but the counting. Tomorrow will be a big night for the GOP as Republican Bob McDonnell reclaims the governorship and the GOP wins all other statewide races (Lt. Governor and Attorney General). I expect the results to be quite lopsided with McDonnell winning by at least 10 points. This will have a down ballot effect and the GOP will probably add about 7 seats to its majority in the legislature. This means that the GOP will have total control of VA during the redistricting that will take place after the 2010 census.

New Jersey - Jersey continues to be a tough race to call, Christie's once commanding lead has gone, but Corzine's numbers have never improved and his approval rating is among the lowest for any governor. Independent candidate Chris Daggett appears to be fading and the late trend suggests a return for Christie. A new Public Policy Polling survey shows Christie up by 6 points. I stand by my prediction that Christie will win by about 2 percentage points, driven mostly by his continued lead among independents.

New York 23 - The most fascinating race of the year. The liberal Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava suspended her campaign on Saturday as it became clear that she could not win. Then on Sunday she endorsed the Democrats Bill Owens. Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman appears to have the momentum in the race, but it is unclear what impact Scozzafava's endorsement will have.  This race is getting attention with many seeing it as a microcosm of a coming civil war within the GOP between the conservative base and more moderate voices - but Scozzafava's decision to endorse the Democrat lends credibility to the many Republicans who felt that she simply was not a Republican. Embracing moderates is one thing, by most accounts Scozzafava was not a moderate Republican so much as she was a liberal to moderate Democrat running on the Republican ticket. I expect Hoffman to win by about 5 points.

So yes, I see a tremendous night for Republicans. Democrats will argue that Virginia and New Jersey were decided based on state issues and have nothing to do with the President or his agenda (even as Obama has now declared the NJ race as essential to his agenda). In NY-23 Democrats will argue that it shows that the GOP has no place for moderate or independent voices (a tough argument to make given that moderate and independent voters will be crucial to GOP wins in VA and NJ). If Hoffman wins by more than 5 points (assuming that he wins) in a district carried by President Obama the argument about GOP extremism will be very hard to make.

If there is a GOP sweep tomorrow expect this to seriously undermine key legislative initiatives such as health reform and cap and trade as moderate Democrats become increasingly concerned about 2010.

Stay tuned...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Update: Will Virginia and New Jersey be Canaries in the 2010 Coal Mine?

Back in early September I urged you to watch the off year elections in VA and NJ very closely, arguing that two GOP victories would indicate a high level of GOP intensity, Independent willingness to vote GOP, and, most deadly, Democratic apathy. Today marks the one week countdown to Election Day 2009 and I think that it is a good time to revisit the states. There appears to be nothing left to do in VA other than ask how large Republican Bob McDonnell's margin of victory will be.  The three most recent polls show McDonnell crushing Democrat Creigh Deeds by 11, 15, and 17 points. Despite (or perhaps because of) high profile help from Bill Clinton, and other leading Democrats, Deeds is in fee-fall. Now comes word that President Obama will campaign for Deeds today (October 27). This could prove to be embarrassing for the president if Deeds goes on to lose by double digits in a state that is central to Obama's reelection plans. As if the news in VA could not get worse for Democrats, Republicans appear poised to win (reclaim) all statewide posts.

New Jersey is bit more complicated. Back in September Republican Chris Christie appeared to be heading for certain victory over the Democrat John Corzine, the state's unpopular incumbent governor. But things began to shift during late September and early October as Independent candidate Chris Daggett gained traction after Corzine launched a scathing barrage of negative ads seeking to discredit Christie - even making multiple (not so veiled) references to Christie's weight problem. As a result, Christie began to lose support as Daggett's support began to rise. Interestingly, Corzine's support has budged little - stuck around 40%. Normally that would be a death sentence for an incumbent, but the presence of a strong third-party candidate meant that Corzine could win with only 40% support. Although Christie's once clear lead over Corzine has evaporated the most recent polls from NJ suggest that Christie has rebounded (slightly) and that Daggett is losing steam. The last three polls have Christie ahead by 2, 3, and 4 points - certainly too close for comfort, but all show a trend back toward Christie, away from Daggett, and absolutely no momentum for Corzine - despite high profile visits from the President and Vice President and reports that Corzine is outspending Christie by a 3 to 1 margin.

At this point - one week out - I predict with confidence that Republicans will sweep VA setting the stage for a tough battle for Obama in 2012. I also predict that Chris Christie will win a very narrow victory in reliably blue NJ (probably a 2% margin). Democrats will argue that the races have no national implications, Republicans will claim that they represent a repudiation of the Democratic agenda - the truth will be somewhere in between. Expect a clear Republican victory in both states to embolden the party and to further depress Democratic enthusiasm and momentum. A clear Republican victroy in both states will also cause many a Blue Dog Democrat to reconsider their support for a range of issues from health reform to cap and trade as the 2010 midterms begin to take center stage.

The wild card to watch next week is the special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District. A reliably Republican distrcit where the GOP nominated a liberal Republican, Dede Scozzafava, to run against Democrat Bill Owens. Not pleased with the Scozzafava choice the Conservative Party nominated conservative Republican Doug Hoffman. Initial fears within the GOP were that Scozzafava and Hoffman would split the GOP vote and deliver the district to Owens - but two recent polls (each with small sample sizes) show that Hoffman has pulled into the lead. Though the polls showing a Hoffman lead were partisan polls with small sample sizes a review of polls taken since late September show a clear trend in the race. Democrat Owens has been stuck at about 30%, Scozzafava has been losing support, and Hoffman has been rising. If Hoffman wins this race it will show that conservative voters - many of whom sat out the 2008 election - are re-energized. In mid-term and off-year elections few things matter more than an energized base.

See you next Tuesday night...

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Need for Real Health Care Reform

The current reform proposals being considered in the House and the Senate will not solve the systemic problems in the American health care system - in fact they will likely make the problems worse. The current reform proposals maintain our fragmented system and will even add to the fragmentation.... read the rest at the FreeStater Blog.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Gay Marriage: It's a Simple Question of Equality

Perhaps it is appropriate that an 86 year old WWII vet reminds us that equality has always been the American ideal.... in a simple way this is a man standing up for his son, in more profound way it is veteran demanding that his nation live up up to the ideals for he so many have fought and died - freedom, liberty, equality.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Deciphering Public Opinion on Health Care Reform

Trying to understand what all of these health reform polls mean? I argue that Democrats are correct when they say that the public supports a public option, and Republicans are correct when they say that the public opposes the health reform proposals currently being considered in Congress... How can both be true? Check out the FreeStater Blog to find out.