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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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If we follow Gallup, we’d draw two conclusions: (a) the increase in self-identified conservatives in the broader public has increased more than Teixeira and Kilgore acknowledge; (b) conservatives were not over-represented as a share of the electorate in 2010, but rather were under-represented in previous cycles.

Now, I’m not saying that Gallup is right. But what I am saying is that if you’re going to make an argument that the electorate has skewed more conservative than the public at large, you should mention the widely regarded poll that doesn’t really support your point. 

Beyond this, they go on to blur the distinctions between Republicans and conservatives to argue that politically the rightward shift in ideology does not result in much benefit to the Republicans. Teixiera asserts that the ideological shift in the public is “completely accounted for” by Republicans and Republican-leaning independents becoming more conservative. 

Ultimately, I think they are on to something with this point, but again this is not the assertion they make in the title. It's one thing to claim that the electorate is not moving rightward, quite another to claim that it is but the GOP didn't pick up many votes from it. What’s more, by looking at registered voters rather than actual voters, they are likely overstating even this point.  After all, the Pew poll they cite found independent registered voters favoring Democrats over Republicans by 3 points, whereas the final margin among actual voters on Election Day was R +19. What about the “pure independents” who actually show up to vote? Have they moved to the right? Teixiera and Kilgore cannot answer that question because of the constraints of their data.

Actually, I agree with the conclusion that Teixeira and Kilgore are making, even though I think their data and methods are hopelessly flawed. If you look at the historical record, you do not really see much by way of growth in self-identified conservatives after 1994. This makes sense. Ideology is a more stable form of public opinion, as it’s usually built upon core values. The year-to-year changes are probably due to shifts in the opinions of less informed voters who have not developed a full ideological system of thought. So, I’d be willing to cede that much of the bump in self-identified conservatives will fade over time. 

But of course, Kilgore and Teixiera want to move from this point to argue against the idea that the midterm elections point to a “natural” majority (Kilgore’s term) for the Republican Party. This is a point I strongly disagree with, and the foundation of my disagreement depends more upon the geographical distribution of public opinion than anything else.  Consider the 2000 presidential election, a year in which George W. Bush lost the nationwide popular vote by 0.5 percent yet still won the popular vote in roughly 240 House congressional districts. This is about as many districts as Barack Obama won, even though he won the popular vote by 7.3 percent. 

My opinion is that the Democratic Party’s coalition has become too urban for it to sustain itself as a majority coalition in Congress over the long run. Prior to the Depression, the Democrats won when they united the rural South and West with just enough ethnic voters from the big cities. The Democratic super majority that began under Franklin Roosevelt was built upon the South and West, plus massive hauls from the cities. But nowadays the Democrats win the cities, but are much weaker everywhere else. This is important because in our system of government, the distribution of the vote matters. Democrats won the big cities by 65-33 in the 2010 midterm, meaning that their voters were clustered into safely Democratic districts. The Republicans won the suburbs and small towns by smaller margins, meaning that less of their vote was “wasted.” The GOP’s advantage, in other words, is more geographical than ideological. 

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