It's been a bad week (year?) for the Democratic Party. In two special elections the party suffered serious defeats. In Nevada (NV-2), a district that John McCain narrowly won in 2008, voters elected Republican Mark Amodei with a 22 point victory margin. In New York (NY-9), a district formerly held by disgraced representative Anthony Weiner elected a Republican for the first time since the 1920s. The district was considered to be a safe Democratic district. Weiner won re-election by nearly 20 point during the Republican sweep in 2010 and Obama carried it comfortably in 2008.
On the same day as the special elections a moderate Democratic organization called Third Way released a survey and strategy memo in which they detail the Democrats' problem with party "switchers" and "droppers." Names given to Democrats who voted for Obama in 2008 but then voted Republican in 2010 or simply did not vote. These members of the Democratic coalition are more moderate and less loyal to the party.
In a recent post, I presented evidence that there is a significant and growing disconnect between Democratic party activists and rank and file party members. There is no such disconnect among Republican voters. Simply stated, the Democratic coalition is quite ideologically diverse, with most members identifying as moderates and nearly as many self-identified conservatives as liberals - but party activists, the folks who set the party's agenda, are decidedly liberal. As a result, a significant segment of the Democratic coalition is situated either between the extremes of the two parties or, in some cases, closer to the Republican party.
The result is a higher likelihood of defections among Democrats. A review of data from an American National Elections Studies panel survey of the same folks in 2000, 2002, and 2004 demonstrates this quite well. In Table 1, we see that Democrats of all partisan strengths in 2000 were more likely to have left the Democratic party by 2002 or 2004 than were their Republican counterparts.
Party switching is only one indication of party loyalty - voting is a far more telling indicator. Using the same panel survey, I explored the voting patterns of Democrats and Republicans across three Congressional elections and found that Democrats, especially independent Democrats, are less loyal to party over time.
As shown in Table 2, weak and independent Democrats had roughly the same party loyalty as Republicans in the 2000 election - but when looking at how those same folks voted in 2002 or 2004 the Democrats were considerably more likely to have defected and voted Republican. Unfortunately for the Democratic party, independent Democrats are the fastest growing segment of Democratic partisans, consisting of one-third of party identifiers. And these folks are less attached to the party over time and less likely to vote for the party in Congressional elections over successive elections. This may provide an explanation for the Democrat’s inability to translate their partisan identification advantage into consistent electoral victory. Democrats need to close the ideological divide that exists between party activists and rank and file members.
There may be more money and passion among activists on the left, but there aren't enough voters to secure electoral victory. The true wealth of voters in the Democratic coalition resides in the political center and that's where the Democratic party will find the path to its survival.