Monday, September 26, 2011

There Will Be Blood in 2012

I’m always rattling on about the relative autonomy of electoral battles between Democrats and Republicans from the ideological war for American hearts and minds between liberals and conservatives. Winning national electoral battles is a matter of gaining or retaining control of the White House, and winning bigger or smaller majorities in the Senate and the House. The state of play in the ideological war is best measured by determining whether the median voter on the ideological spectrum is moving left, right or staying in roughly the same place over successive elections.

That means that electoral victories can, but needn’t, signal ideological victories. We all know that elections can be won on the basis of non-ideological appeals and a party can win an election in which ideological commitments figure prominently by ceding enough ground to an overreaching opposition to grab the ideological center of the electorate. Liberals became painfully aware of the difference between electoral and ideological victories when they were shocked to discover that they’d shot themselves in the political foot by passing ObamaCare in early 2010. Conservatives learned substantially the same lesson when they discovered that their bigger-than-anticipated electoral victory in 2004 didn’t mean that the country was ready for partially privatizing Social Security.

Were the 2010 election results different from those in 2004 and 2008 in that the Republican landslide signaled sustainable ideological gains for conservatives?

William Galston’s comparison of polling data from 2005 and today won’t cheer up already demoralized Democrats and liberals. He notes that polls taken within a year of the electoral gains Republicans registered in 2004 already revealed that, while the average respondent (granted, not the same thing as the median voter) situated himself just right-of-center on the ideological spectrum and equidistant from the prevailing ideology of the political parties, independent voters placed themselves twice as far from the Republican than the Democratic Party. That was an early sign that the 2004 election hadn’t been the ideological victory conservatives hoped it was and that Republican’s ideological overreach was setting them up for at least an electoral bloodbath in 2006 and maybe an ideological one.

It would bad enough for Democrats and liberals if polling results now were the mirror image of those in 2005.  If you believe Galston, however, they're a lot worse than that:
“Although average voters continue to see themselves as just right of center, they now place themselves twice as far away from the Democratic Party as from the Republicans. In addition, Independents now see themselves as significantly closer to the Republican Party, reversing their perceptions of six years ago.

“There’s another difference as well. In 2005, Republicans’ and Democrats’ views of their own parties dovetailed with the perceptions of the electorate as a whole. Today, while voters as a whole agree with Republicans’ evaluation of their party as conservative, they disagree with Democrats, who on average see their party as moderate rather than liberal. So when Independents, who see themselves as modestly right of center, say that Democrats are too liberal, average Democrats can’t imagine what they’re talking about.”
Got that?  Between 2005 and today the center of the ideological spectrum has moved substantially to the right and everybody knows it except self-identified Democrats. Worse, the liberal base of the Democratic Party, having lost its patience with Democratic candidates who pull their ideological punches, is demanding that the 2012 election be made into a referendum on liberal governing priorities. That, Galston suggests, is a sign that there will be blood in the 2012 elections.  And not only Democrats, but liberals, will be doing most of the bleeding.

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