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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.

Those principles, however, admit of enough flexibility to enable the parties to modulate their campaign platform and message depending on the electoral circumstances. They regularly change issue emphases, sometimes (as in the case of the GOP “flip-flop” on tariffs) they can even change issue positions, and all the while they can still be consistent with their core values.

When, for instance, the Republican party was on the ropes in the 1930s, it remained the conservative party, but it nevertheless moderated its positions for the next couple decades as it tried to win back its base in the Northeast. When the party found an opening in the West and South, the latter for the first time in more than a century, it moved back to the right to appeal to the more conservative voters in those regions.

Recent history also contains such examples. After the Democrats were shellacked in the 1980s, Clinton offered to be a “New Democrat,” and after the Republican revolution seemed to have been repulsed in the late 1990s, George W. Bush promised to be a “compassionate conservative.” These are the kinds of modulations that are electorally expedient without betraying a party’s core philosophy of government.

In the end, this is a big way that parties go from defeat to victory: they really don’t alter their basic beliefs, but they refine their presentation of them, depending on the preferences of those swing voters in the center.

***

As mentioned above, the Democratic leaders and liberal opinion makers forgot these rules in 2009-2010. Too many of them believed that the 60-year political dynamic had suddenly been displaced, that a new age of Democratic dominance was at hand, and that the party should go about achieving its long-standing ideological goals.  Democrats passed an inefficient stimulus that favored party clients too heavily, then spent more than a year working on health care and cap and trade while real incomes declined and unemployment continued to soar. The public made them pay for their neglectfulness in the 2010 midterm.

Republicans cannot make the same mistake as the Democrats in 2012. What this means in practice is not that the party must forsake its conservative values, but rather it must find a nominee who can relate them to the practical worries of these non-partisan, non-ideological voters in the center, and make those voters believe that he will be the best choice for the future. Put another way, he must be a great salesman of conservatism to non-conservatives. And then in office, he must govern always with an eye to holding them in his voting coalition.

An ideological firebrand or a polarizer who alienates the political center will not do. Because, after all, the GOP’s opportunity next year is not thanks to an emerging Republican majority, but because the emerging Democratic majority the liberals were awaiting never happened. That means all those swing voters who backed Obama in 2008 are up for grabs, and the top priority of the GOP is now to find a candidate who can win them over.

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