Republicans won historic gains in the U.S. House (and statehouses) and above-average gains in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday. Why? Because Independents have swung massively behind the GOP. And the reason for this shift, as Brookings's William Galston explains, is that independents -- and the electorate as a whole -- are moving in a conservative direction:

Did independents shift toward Republicans because they had become significantly more conservative between 2006 and 2010? Fortunately we don’t have to speculate about this. According to the Pew Research Center, conservatives as a share of total Independents rose from 29 percent in 2006 to 36 percent in 2010. Gallup finds exactly the same thing: The conservative share rose from 28 percent to 36 percent while moderates declined from 46 percent to 41 percent.

This shift is part of a broader trend: Over the past two decades, moderates have trended down as share of the total electorate while conservatives have gone up. In 1992, moderates were 43 percent of the total; in 2006, 38 percent; today, only 35 percent. For conservatives, the comparable numbers are 36 percent, 37 percent, and 42 percent, respectively. So the 2010 electorate does not represent a disproportional mobilization of conservatives: If the 2010 electorate had perfectly reflected the voting-age population, it would actually have been a bit more conservative and less moderate than was the population that showed up at the polls. Unless the long-term decline of moderates and rise of conservatives is reversed during the next two years, the ideological balance of the electorate in 2012 could look a lot like it did this year.

Two years ago, everyone expected that the financial crisis and Great Recession would make Americans more liberal, i.e., more receptive to big government. The opposite seems to have occurred. Does President Obama have what it takes to govern a country significantly to the right of his political preferences? Does he even want to govern such a country?

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