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.
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.
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