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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Partisanship, Polarization, and the New Normal in Midterm Elections

In America, the era of elections as affirmation has ended, we are living in the era of elections as repudiation.

At this point, there is little doubt that the 2010 midterm elections are going to produce a political sea change in Washington and in State Houses across the United States. Just two years ago, pundits, politicians, and political analysts were writing the GOP’s epitaph. The party had become too conservative, too regional, too focused on social issues. Meanwhile the Democrats were enjoying a resurgence that would last a generation thanks to a reinvigorated public desire for governmental intervention in the economy and demographic changes that would further support a growing Democratic majority. Virginia and Indiana had broken their long ties to the GOP and the states of the Mountain West had become new Democratic leaning swing states.

It’s amazing how much can change in 18 months. Indiana and Virginia are no longer so friendly to the Democrats and those states in the Mountain West appear to be trending Republican again. Those predictions of a new Democratic majority in America; they seem as quaint and outdated as the predictions of a new Republican majority following the 1994 and 2002 midterms. Some commentators and even elected officials have suggested that the American electorate is simply too fickle, expects too much too soon, or in the recent words of Eugene Robinson are simply "spoiled brats." They're all wrong.

The truth is America is sailing through largely uncharted waters, down a river that has its source in the tumult and change of the 1960s. For either Democrats or Republicans to emerge as a new majority party in America, Americans would first need to gravitate to one of the parties and in a permanent way. This is what happened in the 1890s, when Americans overwhelmingly endorsed the Republican Party. In 1894, Democrats appeared to be recovering from the Age of Lincoln. Democrat Grover Cleveland was in his second term and the part controlled the House of Representatives by a margin of 218 to 124. But an economic crisis in 1893 and sectional and policy divisions within the Democratic Party raised serious public doubts about the party of Jackson. In the election of 1894, Republicans won 130 seats in the House and capture a 254 to 93 seat majority. In 1896 the Republican coup would be complete with the election of Republican William McKinley as president. It marked a 30 year period of clear Republican dominance that would not end until the economic collapse of 1929 and the midterm election of 1930 when Democrats came within a seat of reclaiming the House and the Senate. Over the next three elections Democrats would net a total of 37 Senate seats and 170 House seats. This Democratic realignment was made complete with the overwhelming election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. Democrats remained the majority party until the late 1960s.

Since 1968, neither party has been able to claim the allegiance of a majority of Americans. In fact, party attachment has been on the decline and the share of voters identifying as Independent or only “weakly” attached to either party has increased sharply. According to data from the American National election Study, in 1964 approximately 76% of the country identified as a “Partisan” (either week or strong) in contrast only 24% identified as Independent or Leaning Independent. By 1984 it was 65% to 35% and in 2008 it was 60% to 40%. Across that 42 year span the share identifying as “Strong Partisans” decreased from 38% in 1964 to 32% in 2008 and “Weak Partisans” declined from 38% to 28%. The share identifying as “Leaning Independent” doubled from 15% to 29%. Americans began a forty year trek away from the political parties – but especially the Democrats. In 1964, 52% of Americans identified as either “Weak” or “Strong” Democrats and 35% as “Weak” or “Strong” Republicans, 23% were Independents (some committed and others with “leanings” toward Republicans or Democrats). By 1984 that breakdown was 37% Democrat, 27% Republican, and 35% Independent. In 2008 it was 34%, 26%, and 40% respectively. Americans have become less attached to either party.

But as Americans have moved away from party, the parties have responded by becoming ever more partisan and polarized. Since the 1960s and the decline of the Democrat party's advantage American politics has become far more competitive. The Democrats lost their hold on the South, the Republicans lost their hold on the North East. According to data from State Politics and Policy Quarterly only 7 states had divided government in 1954, in 2007 that number stood at 23 states. With few exceptions, either party has fair shot at winning statewide elections in most states (remember, we vote for offices other than President). A recent study by political scientist Daniel Coffey determined that there is a direct and positive correlation between party competition and party ideology. As a state becomes more competitive between Republicans and Democrats the respective parties become ever more conservative and liberal. V.O. Key hinted at this in 1956 when he argued that competition would force parties to offer more distinct policies to voters in an effort to influence their choice. Additionally, as competition increases the parties come to rely more heavily, not on the mean, median, or moderate voter, but rather on the more committed and active voter. For Democrats this means liberal activists and for Republicans conservative activists. This has the effect of pushing the parties ever farther to the extreme. Multiple studies have confirmed that Congress is a polarized body devoid of a political center.

Though some scholars have advanced the theory that this growing polarization among elected officials is in fact reflective of a polarized public (see Pietro Nivola and David Brady’s “Red and Blue Nation?” volumes or more recently Alan Abramowitz’s “The Disappearing Center”), there is in fact little evidence that the mass public has become polarized. Rather the polarization has occurred among committed political activists and the interest groups they support – a relatively small share of the electorate. Morris Fiorina’s “Disconnect argues this quite effectively.

A new study by Joseph Bafumi and Michael Herron (in the latest volume of the journal American Political Science Review) lends further credence to the argument that parties are more polarized and the electorate is not. I think that their study also helps us to better understand the dynamics of the 1994, 2002, 2006, and 2010 midterms.

Bafumi and Herron compared roll call votes of members of the 109th (the last under Republican control) and 110th (the first under Democratic control post 2006 midterm) Congresses with voter responses drawn from a survey of over 33,000 Americans. Through this process, the authors were able to plot the ideology of members of Congress as well as the median ideology of Democratic, Republican, and all voters in a state. What they found is fascinating. In nearly every state studied Democratic members of Congress were well to the left of the median voter and even to the left of the median Democratic voter. Likewise, Republicans were well to the right. Further, they determined that the median member of the 109th Congress was well to the right of the median American voter. This may help to explain the Republican’s loss of the House and the Senate in 2006. But the authors determined that the 2006 election did not bring a sense of balance to Congress, in fact the median member of the newly elected Democratic Congress was well to the left of the median American voter. In short, the median voter had been “leapfrogged” in the 2006 election as Congress moved from one extreme to the other.

Which brings us to 2010. Republicans are poised to make significant gains in the House and Senate. Most analysts agree now that they are likely to reclaim the House and may come within 1 or 2 seats of reclaiming the Senate (a takeover is not impossible). Democrats stand to lose all of the ground that they won in 2006 and 2008. Why? Because the American public is not polarized, neither the Democratic nor Republican parties can lay claim to a majority or perhaps even a plurality of Americans. But ours is a two party system and Americans must choose between Republicans or Democrats. So in 2006, a moderate electorate rejected the extremes of the Republican Congress in the only way they could, by voting for Democrats. In 2010, a moderate electorate is set to go to the polls and reject the extremes of the Democratic Congress in a similar fashion. The lesson for Republicans should be clear, voters are no more endorsing a conservative agenda in 2010 than were they endorsing liberalism in 2006. For Republicans, failure to adhere to that lesson will likely lead to a repeat of 2006 and 2010 in 2014.

So long as America’s dominant political parties continue their ideological drift away from the median voter the American electorate will continue to drift away from the parties. A recent study by Pew speaks to the potential for this, in a September 2006 survey Pew found that Independent voters favored a Democrat for Congress by an 18 point margin, a similar survey last month showed Independents now favoring a Republican by a 15 point margin – a 33 point swing. Pew also found that Independents were the largest voting bloc claiming 37% of the electorate, and increase of 3 percentage points in two years. If such dramatic swings occur among 37% of the electorate, then so-called wave elections like 1994, 2006, and perhaps 2010 may become the new normal in America. Meaning no party can take its control of Congress for granted. The question is whether this Congressional competitiveness will force one or both parties to moderate or simply make them more extreme.