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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Left Behind?

I’d like to start the week off with what I’ll call…Data Day! (Cue the Monty Python illustrated montage, with majestic trumpets, ending in flatulence.)
Last week I mentioned that my read of the evidence is that Americans are right-leaning. This is an incredibly important question in strategy debates among Democrats. What drives many of us to heretofore unseen levels of profanity and exasperation with professional Democrats is the discrepancy between our poor electoral fortunes and the idea that we live in a Fifty-Fifty Nation. If the parties are at parity, why can’t the Democrats (frame/motivate our base/stay as united/enforce discipline/defend our principles) as well as Republicans? And the answers that lend themselves are that we have inept candidates, incompetent consultants, unprincipled elites, or ineffective framing.
It’s certainly true that we live in a Fifty-Fifty Nation when it comes to partisanship, even though that is an indicator of erosion in Democratic support since the post-Watergate ’70s. The following chart shows the Democrats’ share of party identification among adults who identify as either Democrats or Republicans (based on Gallup data I tabulated):
But the fact that the country is evenly divided in terms of partisanship doesn’t mean that it must be evenly divided in ideological identification. For that to be the case, liberalism would have to be as common among Democrats as conservatism is among Republicans. But it is not.
According to the 2004 American National Election Study, liberals were a majority among Democrats (56% versus 33% conservative). But conservatives dominate the Republican Party to a much greater extent, accounting for over 80 percent of their party members compared with just a 5% share for liberal Republicans. Nationally, there are 40 percent more conservatives than liberals. This was also true in 1972, the first year the NES asked respondents this question. In the Gallup data, where it’s impossible to allocate “leaning” moderates to the liberal and conservative groups, liberals look much scarcer.
The following chart is analogous to the previous one, except this time I show liberals as a share of those calling themselves either liberal or conservative. This chart is a bit disjointed because Gallup did not construct the ideology questions consistently from year to year. All of the data points listed were from questions providing at least three categories (liberal, moderate, or conservative), and most of them provide five. Question and category wording varied however, so I show each consistent series in the same color. Finally, I tried to be as consistent as possible in choosing the month in each year the survey was conducted.
I’ll stop here and let you all comment on the questions all these data raise. How meaningful are the labels “liberal” and “conservative”? How can we account for the timing of the changes in the data? If self-identified ideology is meaningful, what are the implications for various electoral strategies prescribed for Democrats?

2 comments on “Left Behind?

  1. Daniel on

    I think self-labeling is a good indicator not of people’s actual convictions but rather of how socially acceptable the perceived liberal ideology is at any particular moment in history. In other words, more people say they’re “liberal” when they think their fellow citizens think that “liberal” is a respectible thing to be.
    I think the kind of Enlightenment liberalism that founded the U.S. will always be popular when it is applied in a thoughtful and humble way. What we label such a platform or ideology is just a matter of branding; it’s the guts that really count, and I think most Americans lean to the classical liberal side.

  2. libra on

    I’m not a Democratic strategist or activist; I’m not even a registered Democrat. But I voted in every election ever since I got my citizenship and, _most_ of the time, I voted Democrat (if, sometimes, only as a “lesser evil”, rather than “straight from the heart”).
    Does that mean there’s room for me here? Because, sometimes, I get a feeling that the only thing about me the Democratic party is interested in is the amount of cash I can provide, not my opinions.
    But, just in case this is a different story, and for all it’s worth…
    I don’t think the “liberal” and “conservative” labels are all that meaningful, if they’re self-applied. I condsider myself “a moderate”, but most of my acquaintances (including self-labelled Democrats) say I’m “a flaming liberal” on most issues. I had to resort to the blogosphere to find like-minded people.
    Regarding the “why”: I don’t know about the rest of the US but, at least in some of the Southern States, it could be due to the fact that the knee-jerk, “yellow dog Democrats” are dying out and are not being replaced by the younger cadres.
    Which is, IMO, what needs to be done (implications for strategies). DO go after the younger voters, because that’s where the idealists are, and the Democrats, especially in the past 50 years or so, have shown themselves as caring more about the greater good of many, than the Republicans. But what you need to do is convince the youngsters that they CAN make a difference. Convince them to register and vote.
    That’s why I think that Dean is right; we need to break away from the siege mentality (always on the defensive, and defending only the — ever shrinking in number — designated castles). We need to start sowing the seeds and cultivating them, for future harvests.
    It would help, if those of our representatives who are already “in” showed a bit more moral backbone rather than worry about re-electability. That _might_ (I’m not saying it would) give the new crop of runners-up a tad more credibility…


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