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The Electorate: Moderate, and Slowly Moving Left

In my column today, I refer to some numbers that Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta -- great people in The Post’s polling department -- extracted for me from the 2008 national exit poll. The poll had separate questions asking about party affiliation and their ideological leaning. Jon and Jennifer put them together. And I made the point that Republicans are a party that clearly tilts to the right, while Democrats are a mix of moderates and liberals.

In the past, the G.O.P.’s clear conservative identity seemed to be an asset. But with the country moving away from conservatism -- and with the G.O.P. needing to change its image -- this conservative tilt has become a liability. Democrats are better positioned to build a new majority. I say that guardedly: The 2008 election did not realign the country. But Democrats have an opportunity to build on the results of 2006 and 2008. Their ability to establish an enduring majority depends on how well they govern.

Below is a more detailed breakdown of the 2008 electorate. These numbers belie the notion that we are a “center-right” country. It's true that the word “liberal” is still less popular than the word “conservative” (except among the youngest cohort of voters). On the other hand, a solid majority of Americans -- 56 percent -- place themselves in one of four groups: moderate Democrats, liberal Democrats, moderate independents and liberal independents. If there is a new Democratic majority to be formed, it will come in significant part from these groups.

The 2008 Electorate
Liberal Democrats: 15 %
Moderate Democrats: 18 %
Conservative Democrats: 5 %
Liberal independents 5 %
Moderate independents 16 %
Conservative independents 8 %
Liberal Republicans: 1 %
Moderate Republicans: 10 %
Conservative Republicans: 21 %
* The liberal, moderate and conservative independent groups also include a very small percentage of voters who identified their party affiliation as "other."

Beyond those numbers, what should alarm Republicans most are the trends by age. Not only are young voters -- those under 30 -- overwhelmingly Democratic, they have become more so over the last four years. And if the young are the trendsetters (as they were during the Reagan years, when young people tilted to the right), then liberalism is set for a comeback. I noted in my column that young people are the only age group in which more voters called themselves “liberal” than "conservative." Note also that the most strongly conservative group consists of voters over the age of 65 -- i.e., voters born in 1943 or before. This is the post-New Deal electorate and includes many voters who reached maturity in the Eisenhower years. The pure New Deal generation has passed on to its reward, but the under 30 generation is providing liberalism and the Democratic party with the electoral ballast once provided by the New Dealers.

Here are the numbers for party ID and ideology by age:

2008: Dem Rep Ind Lib Mod Con
Total 39 32 29 22 44 34
18-29 45 26 29 32 42 26
30-44 38 32 30 21 46 33
45-64 37 33 29 19 45 36
65+ 39 36 26 17 43 40
2004: Dem Rep Ind Lib Mod Con
Total 37 37 26 21 45 34
18-29 37 35 29 31 43 27
30-44 34 40 26 19 47 34
45-64 37 36 27 20 46 35
65+ 39 39 23 16 46 38
2000: Dem Rep Ind Lib Mod Con
Total 39 35 27 20 50 29
18-29 36 35 29 27 48 24
30-44 38 36 27 20 49 31
45-64 39 33 28 19 51 30
65+ 43 37 21 16 53 31

I’d close by underscoring that Democratic and liberal triumphalism would be nearly as mistaken as Republican and conservative triumphalism was after the 2004 election. (I say “nearly” because Bush was weaker than Obama in terms of the popular vote in both 2000 and 2004.) But I have been arguing for a while that the logic of American politics pointed in a progressive direction. For now, at least, that is looking like a good bet.

By E.J. Dionne  | January 6, 2009; 4:10 PM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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Looks like the Republicans triggered the penalty clause in their contract with America.

Posted by: fzdybel | January 7, 2009 11:02 PM | Report abuse

I'm moderate myself, and would love to see the country less conservative. But have another look at your numbers. From 2008 to 2000, the total moderate share - the largest block then and now - dropped by 5.6%, from 39.7% to 34.1%. More than half of this went to conservatives, whose share increased by 3.3%, from 23.0% to 26.4%. The rest was split between independents (up 1.1%) and liberals, then and now the smallest group, up 1.2%.

So the country is becoming more polarized between liberals and conservatives, with the conservatives winning the polarization battle. And a steady gain in independents, which means who knows what.

Your pollsters should have asked the same split again, but excluded independents, to get the members of this very hard to define category to declare themselves. By not doing this, the results are left open to almost any interpretation. A big missed opportunity!

And you should have recognised that we still have a left and a right battling for votes from the middle and the undeclared - and the right is growing, not shrinking.

What is different is the moderates and independents going more Democratic. But after 8 years of GW Bush, that's not a realignment, it's just tiredness and disgust. It lays the groundwork for a continued Democrat/Republican oscillation, with the Republicans having to gain fewer votes from the middle and undeclared than before.

Posted by: floydearlsmith | January 8, 2009 4:32 AM | Report abuse

This is an opinion poll not a data analysis and as a math guy I think the level of precision inferred (1%-5% difference being meaningful) is impossible. And, the Democratic majorities are solely dependent on Blue Dogs, so the swing vote is Moderate-Conservative. Also, conservatives have been overwhelmingly victorious in the most important constitutional issue of our time, gun control.

Posted by: jaybute | January 8, 2009 10:06 AM | Report abuse


Most Americans are conservative people. Politics and propaganda are a different thing. At this moment the voters are, thankfully, tired of “W” and company. They can easily become tired of Barack and company as well.

It seems to me that the incoming administration itself is center-right. Over the past 30 years or so the definitions have changed. Just yesterday I read that there is continuing debate in the Democratic Party about whether or not the government should spy on the American people and whether or not the government should be allowed to torture people. The conservatives that I knew 30 to 40 years ago would be aghast at these things.

Posted by: Provincial | January 8, 2009 4:38 PM | Report abuse

I think more than fifty percent of people by any poll come out socially conservative if you don't believe it check the voting on proposition 8 in of all places California. This is with the increased Obama turn out too (presumed more liberal). Dionne wishes we were just like Netherlands for sure. America has continuously cycled historically between liberal and conservative from the roaring 20's to 50's, from 60's to 80's...History always has the answers. If were to be as profound as Dionne I would say if anything expect us to shift back and forth more frequently with a larger and better informed and more impatient electorate. Thank you internet.

Posted by: star_key2 | January 8, 2009 8:28 PM | Report abuse

The words "liberal" and "conservative" have been so abused politically that they no longer have any meaning. If one looks in the dictionary, both words have several different definitions.

The fact of the matter is, looking at all the meanings of both words, all people are conservative about on issues and liberal on others.

Posted by: risejugger | January 9, 2009 12:12 AM | Report abuse

Anyone who has paid close attention to politics and policy over the course of the last twenty eight years clearly sees that the conservative right is incorrect in most of their policies. From planned parenthood to pre-emtive war, miliary spending, torture and all the rest of their perverted policies the GOP and the conseratives only wish to impose their beliefs on the rest of us. They always call for freedom and democracy but fall far short when it comes to just that. They like strict constituionalist except when they don't like the way the constitution was written and ask for interpertation. No intelligent person needs someone to interpert the constitiution for them it was clearly written by our founding fathers who did not want the government interfering in the personal lives of its citizens. The suspension of habius corpus,
tapping of phone both landlines and wireless, these are in direct opposition of what freedom is. We as apeople should defend our freedom with our lives even if it means dying at the hands of terrorist bombs right here in the United States. Thats what freedom is all about.
tom mcmahon
millis ma

Posted by: tommic856 | January 9, 2009 7:38 AM | Report abuse

Run the poll with half the questioners using the word "liberal"and the other half using "progressive". See whether it makes a difference.

Posted by: wgmadden | January 9, 2009 1:29 PM | Report abuse

"Just yesterday I read that there is continuing debate in the Democratic Party about whether or not the government should spy on the American people and whether or not the government should be allowed to torture people. The conservatives that I knew 30 to 40 years ago would be aghast at these things."

"Provincial" your claim is simply incredible. Where did you read this, in the Drudge Report?

Posted by: jp1954 | January 9, 2009 2:02 PM | Report abuse

"On the other hand, a solid majority of Americans -- 56 percent -- place themselves in one of four groups: moderate Democrats, liberal Democrats, moderate independents and liberal independents."

Try running the numbers with: moderate Republications, conservative Republicans, moderate independents, and conservative independents. You end up with a nearly identical number. The only way to get this majority is to include "moderate independents" in the liberal coalition, and I don't see any reason they fit there better than the conservative coalition.

Posted by: mez_ | January 9, 2009 2:30 PM | Report abuse

Don't worry, after 4 years of Obama playing golf in Hawaii while the nation's economy bottoms out, the public won't be leaning liberal any more.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | January 9, 2009 8:22 PM | Report abuse

This kind of thing skews back and forth all the time. Younger people tend to grow more conservative with time. They don't necessarily vote Democrat in their 30s. They grow up, they get real jobs and start having to pay taxes, and they observe how social programs and regulation play out in the real world. They see the unintended consequences and the perverse incentives produced by well-meaning social policies that they once supported.

Posted by: tjk1 | January 10, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

The baby boomers generation has led the major political and social shifts over the past 50 years. As the largest generation, they have influenced priorities in economical, fiscal and welfare policies predicated on their own needs.

In the last 15 years, their most productive before retirement, they were accumulating wealth or living the good life. It is not very surprising that Clinton, a democrate, supported a major reduction in welfare entitlements.

The same boomers find themselves very close to retirement, with their nest eggs at a level which either is insufficient to retire or at best will provide a financialy restricted retirement.

Businesswise, those same boomers expect the Federal Government to protect their jobs, to dispense a wide coverage, if not universal, healthcare, to make sure that Social Security is fully funded. They are beggers.

The same people, who were protesting high taxes when they were paying them, will be happy to vote for higher taxes and entitlements, paid by the younger generations.

You can expect a major shift to the left for the next 20 years. They will not be ashamed to have their kids and grand-kids pay to maintain their lifestyles. They are entitled to it.

Posted by: mmmb1949 | January 10, 2009 8:47 PM | Report abuse

Looks like the Republicans triggered the penalty clause in their contract with America.

Posted by: fzdybel | January 7, 2009 11:02 PM

Looks like TERM LIMITS are working..
They got voted out of office.

Fei Hu

Posted by: Fei_Hu | January 12, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

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