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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Two Big New Studies On Progressive Gains

The Center for American Progress has released two very meaty new studies on progressive trends in the American electorate.
The first, by TDS Co-Editor Ruy Teixeira, is entitled “New Progressive America,” and documents “twenty years of demographic, geographic, and attitudinal changes across the country” that “herald a new progressive majority.” Texeira’s basic conclusion is:

At this point in our history, progressive arguments combined with the continuing demographic and geographic changes are tilting our country in a progressive direction–trends that should take America down a very different path than has been traveled in the last eight years.

The fundamental question Teixeira asks in this study is how the country moved from a 53-46 Republican victory in the 1988 presidential election to a 53-46 Democratic victory in 2008.
In terms of demographics, the study focuses on pro-Democratic shifts in the population, especially an 11 point increase in the minority percentage share of voters in presidential electionsa 4 point increase in the percentage of voters who are white college graduates, and a 15 point drop in the percentage of voters who are non-college-educated whites. The first two groups have become solidly pro-Democratic, and while Democrats made small gains in the “white working class vote” between 2004 and 2008, this remains the most conservative major voting demographic.
Other pro-Democratic demographic trends include the impressively progressive outlook of Milennials (those born after 1978), which are adding 4.5 million adults to the voting pool every year, and the growing tilt of professionals, who are “now the most progressive occupational group.” Religious diversity, or more specifically “rapid increases among the unaffiliated”–is another pro-Democratic factor.
In terms of geography, Democrats have become dominant in most major metropolitan areas, primarily because they have made vast improvements since 1988 in fast-growing suburbs.
Texeira also offers detailed analysis of trends in nine states usually thought of as “swing states”: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Colorado, Nevada, Ohio, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana. All these states were carried by George H.W. Bush in 1988 and by Barack Obama in 2008.
The second big CAP study, by John Halpin and Karl Agne, is entitled “State of American Political Ideology, 2009.” Using new definitional categories and a detailed examination of voters’ actual views, this study challenges the static impression of ideological positioning in the electorate that has been produced by the many surveys that simply ask voters whether they consider themselves “liberals, moderates or conservatives” (the basis of all that “center-right nation” talk after the last elections).
Its basic conclusion is:

After nearly three decades of public acceptance of the Reagan-Bush model of conservatism–limited government, tax cuts, traditional values, and military strength–a broad and deep cross-section of the American public now holds markedly progressive attitudes about government and society.

In terms of ideological self-identification, the study deployed a five-part scale that adds “libertarian” and “progressive” to the usual three-part menu. This approach showed 34% of voters self-identifying as conservatives, 29% as moderates, 15 percent as liberals, 16 percent as progressives, and 2% as libertarians. Follow-up questions designed to identify the leanings of moderates divided the electorate into 47% who were or who leaned liberal or progressive, and 48% who were or who leaned conservative or libertarian.
But when Halpin and Agne used 40 specific ideological statements to probe beneath self-identification, a different picture emerged:

On the domestic front, after years of supply-side tax cuts, support for corporations (especially extractive oil and mining companies), and deregulation of the economy, large percentages of Americans increasingly favor progressive ideas centered on: sustainable lifestyles and green energy; public investment in education, infrastructure, and science; financial support for the poor, elderly, and sick; regulation of business to protect workers and consumers; and guaranteed affordable health coverage for every American. On the international front, the legacy of the Bush years has yielded to an American public far more interested in restoring the country’s image abroad, fighting climate change, and pursuing security through diplomacy, alliances, and international institutions than in the continued pursuit of national objectives through the sole projection of military might.
Approximately two-thirds of Americans—reaching to 70 percent to 80 percent on some measures—agree with progressive ideas in each of these domestic and global areas.

Both these studies supply extensive details supporting the top-line findings. But the big news is that the trends–both demographic and ideological, and ultimately partisan–so evident in November of 2008 are truly trends, not emphemeral events. And while the success of President Obama’s and the Democratic Congress’ agenda will obviously have a major impact on what happens in 2010 or 2012, we Democrats do, finally, appear to have the wind at our backs.

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