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Is the Electorate Moving Right?

A response to Ruy Teixeira and Ed Kilgore.

2:34 PM, Nov 22, 2010 • By JAY COST
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The 2010 midterm election saw a historically large percentage of voters claim to be conservative – 42 percent, compared to 32 percent in 2006 and 37 percent in 1994. Unsurprisingly, this has not escaped the notice of liberal analysts who promulgate the “Emerging Democratic Majority” thesis, which proposes that over time the electorate will naturally favor the Democrats.  How do these analysts respond to this problematic (for them) trend?

Via a short essay for the Democratic Strategist, entitled “Is the Electorate Moving to the Right? Ruy Teixeira Says No,” we have their straightforward answer. The electorate has not moved in any significant fashion, and what we saw this November is nothing for liberals to worry about.

However, their reasoning on this line of inquiry is highly problematic. For starters, there is a subtle but significant change of subject from the title to the guts of the piece. Ed Kilgore (who introduces Teixeira’s argument) writes at the beginning:

It’s becoming more and more obvious that the big dispute at the heart of most arguments about the larger meaning of the 2010 midterms elections is whether the U.S. electorate is moving ideologically to the Right (sic) in a way that gives Republicans a natural majority in the future. And the very core of that dispute involves the behavior of self-identified independents, who obviously shifted towards the GOP between 2006-08 and 2010, and who seem to be exhibiting more conservative attitudes generally. [Emphasis Mine]

Ok, fair enough. My answer to that question is a pretty simple: The electorate has indeed moved to the right. The numbers are pretty stark.

Three points are evident from this chart. First of all, note the change in 1994, which remains an important election for understanding party alignment. Prior to 1994, the GOP would usually win the conservative vote with less than 50 percent of the points (somewhere between 65-35 and 75-25). Since then, the GOP has consistently won it by getting more than 50 percentage points, even in bad years for the party. That’s in part a product of the conservative South swinging from the Democrats to Republicans; 1994 was the first year since Reconstruction that the GOP won a majority of House seats in the South. 

Second, more self-identified conservatives showed up to vote in 2010 than at any point since 1980. 

Third, the Republican margin of victory in 2010 was greater with this group than at any point since 1980. 

So, open-and-shut case, right? The electorate is moving to the right. How to get around this?  Here’s Teixeira’s answer (emphasis mine):

Has the public shifted sharply to the right ideologically? Conservatives say the 2010 election proves this, But (sic) careful analysis of available data shows there is far less to this argument than meets the eye. 

Notice the shift in terminology – from “the electorate” to “the public.” And even then, the answer is still in the affirmative:

Conservatives turned out heavily for the 2010 elections but, among registered voters as a whole, the percentage of conservatives only increased by 3% between 2006 and 2010.

So, really the title of the piece should be: “Is the Public Moving to the Right? Ruy Teixeira Says Yes.”  Their actual point of good news (for liberals) is that the public at large has moved to the right less than the electorate we saw in 2010. Their source for this claim is a Pew poll of registered voters taken in September. But what does Gallup say?

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