The Magazine

The 3.6 Percent Republicans

The GOP needs McCain Democrats to win.

Feb 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 21 • By JOHN J. DILULIO JR.
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Most leading conservative writers, radio hosts, and activists would probably concur that their liberal counterparts have never really connected with average Americans. Personalities on the right sell more books and get higher radio and television ratings. And until recently, conservatives seemed to be on an electoral politics roll begun in 1994 when the GOP retook the House. Within Republican ranks, for all the talk about crack-ups and implosions, the Reagan legacy still bridges divides between libertarians, social and religious conservatives, and national security conservatives.

By comparison, the left often draws flies. Win, lose, or draw, Democrats are prone to eat their own. Post-FDR, the last time that staunch liberals saw their favorite candidate elected president was never. In fact, the only time Democrats actually nominated a candidate who toed the liberal intelli-gentsia's line was 1972. George McGovern, who recently called for President Bush's impeachment (cue applause in Cambridge, Mass.), got 38 percent of the national vote.

But what is true for the liberal goose is true for the conservative gander. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan liked to quip, people are entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts. John McCain is more conservative on more issues than average Americans are. By every standard measure (voting record and ratings, positions on major issues), McCain is conservative. Unlike his critics on the right, however, he is no ideological purist; he is conservative, but he is not what the pollsters call "very conservative." That is one obvious reason why he has such wide appeal. For even in our decidedly right-leaning mass electorate, few Americans, including few Republicans, answer to "very conservative."

Take a glance at Gallup Organization surveys. In 2007, self-identified Republicans were about 28 percent of the mass electorate, self-identified Democrats were about 32 percent, and self-identified independents were about 39 percent. Fifty-five percent of Republicans self-identified as "conservative," 26 percent as "moderate," and 13 percent as "very conservative."

Now, do the simple math. "Very conservative" Republicans are only about 3.6 percent--28 percent times 13 percent--of the mass electorate. If that just seems too low, consult the American National Election Studies (ANES) and add the 12 percent of independents who lean Republican to the 12 percent who are self-described "weak Republicans" and the 16 percent who are self-described "strong Republicans." This sums to 40 percent of the mass electorate. But that still means just 5.2 percent of all voters (40 percent times 13 percent) qualify as "very conservative" Republicans.

To get the figure into double-digits, the "very conservative" faithful would have to be at least a quarter of the party's people, and the party's identifiers would need to be 40 percent of the mass electorate (25 percent times 40 percent just equals 10 percent). But that would be a data-free stretch.

In a country of some 300 million souls, a lively and like-minded 4 or 5 percent of the voting-age population can keep myriad media personalities in the money and favored candidates in office. But the conservative party cannot win the presidency without more than a little help from weakly conservative and moderate voters including Democrats and independents.

Independents matter most. Based on ANES data, Emory University's Alan Abramowitz has calculated that in the 10 elections from 1952 to 1988, the Democrat, on average, won about 40 percent of the total two-party vote cast by independents. In the last four presidential elections, however, the Democrat, on average, won 55 percent of the total two-party vote cast by independents. The independents in 2004 cast one in three ballots.

In 2000, Bush won independents 47 percent to 45 percent over Gore. In 2004, Bush lost independents, getting 48 percent to Kerry's 49 percent. The winning difference in 2004, an election in which both parties exceeded their early turnout projections, was the several million evangelical voters who favored Bush but had not turned out in 2000.

But evangelical Christians, though predominantly conservative, are trending slowly toward the center. The trend is most evident among 18-to 29-year-old white evangelicals, only 40 percent of whom self-identify as Republican. And while about a tenth of all Americans today self-identify as "religious right," about 7 percent self-identify as "religious left."