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Morning Jay: Four Enduring Truths of American Elections

6:00 AM, Nov 16, 2011 • By JAY COST
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We are just a few weeks from the first primaries and caucuses, when Republican voters will begin choosing a nominee. In light of this, I'd like to offer some advice for their consideration -- specifically, four enduring truths of American elections that conservatives and Republicans would do well to take heed of as they consider the candidates seeking their support.

The Democrats ignored these truths in 2009 and 2010, and they paid the price in the 2010 midterms. If Republicans ignore them by choosing a bad nominee, they will pay a similar price next year, giving President Obama an opportunity for reelection despite a miserable economic climate.

1. The two parties have long been roughly equal in strength. This first enduring truth is the most important. However, it is so often overlooked, as the media environment is dominated by triumphalists on both sides who proudly proclaim after every election that this was well and truly the decisive victory against the opposition.

No way! Such an election has yet to happen.

As proof of this, consider the following chart, which tracks a weighted average of the GOP margin of victory or defeat in the House and presidency, by decade.

This chart is striking for how constant it is over the decades. The Democrats dominated the 1930s, but ever since then the two parties split almost equally, with the GOP enjoying a slight advantage in the 1950s and the Democrats a slightly larger one in the 1960s. But otherwise, there's been roughly 50/50 vote hauls.

We can consider this another way: in the last sixty years (from 1950 to 2010), there has been divided party control of the federal government sixty percent of the time. And a large portion of those years of unified control under Democrats saw ideological divisions within their own party; conservative Southerners actually held the balance of power in the unified Democratic governments of 1948-52, 1960-64, and 1966-68.

2. Strong partisans do not dominate the political process. This point builds on the previous one, and is also often lost in the contemporary media environment, which is dominated by strong ideologies. But these true believers, though vociferous, are relatively few in electoral terms. The following graph explains this by tracking the percentage of strong partisans (be they Democrats or Republicans) in the electorate since 1956.

As we can see, strong partisanship in aggregate terms has been roughly stable for the last thirty or so years, usually falling between 30 percent and 40 percent. The remaining voters – who constitute a majority – either identify as soft partisans or independents.

3. The swing vote is decisive. Most of the soft partisans and independents mentioned under the second point usually back one side or the other, but a good portion of them are true swing voters. And they tend to be numerous enough to constitute a decisive portion of the electorate. In other words, the side that wins these people wins the election.

[Swing voters in the above graph are those who have switched their party support from the previous election to the current one (and major third party candidacies like John Anderson and Ross Perot are included in these calculations).]

Only a handful of elections –1948, 1956, 1988, and 2004 – have a small number of these swing voters. The remaining contests usually see the swing vote exceed 15 percent of the electorate. Considering how evenly split the parties have been historically, these voters are the prime movers in changes in the partisan makeup of the government.

4. Parties must refine their messages to persuade these swing voters. We can really go back more than 100 years – to the election of 1896 – and see the contours of today’s ideological divide between the two parties. So, there is a great deal of consistency, at least when we examine the broad principles.

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