(Centennial Fellow) Before turning to the 2010 election results, let’s think back on the predictions made by many pundits and election scholars. According to some, from 2006 through 2009, it was explained that the Republican Party had spiraled to the point of ultimate irrelevance. Several books were published on this theme, including two by former Clinton aides: Sidney Blumenthal’s The Strange Death of Republican America and James Carville’s 40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation. Scholarly studies of shifting demographics, which focused largely on the influx of Hispanic immigrants who would seemingly favor Democrat Party policies, were provided as evidence to solidify claims of Republican doom. The May 18, 2009 edition of Time magazine ran a cover story entitled “Endangered Species,” signifying that the Republican Elephant was destined for permanent minority status.
There was indeed some statistical evidence and voting data to support these contentions. When the exit polling and other data are mined from 2006 through early 2009, there is evidence that the country was in the midst of a shift away from the Republican Party.
In the 2006 mid-term elections, Democratic candidates received 52 percent of the popular vote. This contrasts with the Republican vote of 45.6 percent. In the 2008 Presidential Elections, President Obama carried the national popular vote with 52.9 percent versus McCain’s 45.7 percent. Turning to the popular vote in House elections in 2008, the Democrats won 53.2 percent of the vote, while Republican candidates earned 42.5 percent.
Viewing American politics from this small window of 3-4 years, one could conclude that the nation’s politics had indeed shifted from center-right to center-left. When averaged, these elections suggest an electorate favoring the Democrats (52.7%) over the Republicans (44.6%).
When we factor in the 2009 Virginia and New Jersey elections, the January 2010 Massachusetts special Senate election, and now the 2010 mid-term election, combined with the trends in the United States dating back to the 1990’s, a very different story begins to emerge.
William Galston, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and former advisor to President Clinton, provides an excellent analysis of what the 2010 elections mean. When we consider the broader context, dating back to 1992, a clear trend emerges of a population moving increasingly toward conservative ideas. Galston says, “In 1992, moderates were 43 percent of the total; in 2006, 38 percent; today, only 35 percent. For conservatives, the comparable numbers are 36 percent, 37 percent, and 42 percent, respectively.”
We can see from these data that the election of 2010 was a return to the trend that began in the 1980’s and 1990’s, which found America shifting towards the conservative side, and that the shift to the left was a temporary disturbance. Clearly, the popularity of Obama, the anger towards Bush, and the frustration with two wars all explain the surge in support for the Democrats.
Further evidence that this was temporary is the dramatic increase of Republicans in state legislatures, especially in the states where these increases occurred. A study of Tuesday’s state legislature races shows that Republicans picked up 19 legislative chambers in 13 states. Of those 13 states, Obama won the popular vote of 11 of them in 2008. While the 2006 and 2008 elections did show a partisan edge for the Democrats, the success of Republicans nationally and locally in Tuesday’s election shows a return to the long-term trend.
For Galston, the key to understanding the return to conservatism is to study the voting of “independent” voters. In 2006, the partisan breakdown of Independents went 57 percent to Democrats and 39 percent to Republicans. Jump forward four years and these numbers are reversed. Fifty five percent of independents voted with Republicans this year while 39 percent voted for Democrat candidates. This is a significant shift toward conservatism by the independent voters. Both the Pew and Gallup polls support this contention that independents trended right: “According to the Pew Research Center, conservatives as a share of total Independents rose from 29 percent in 2006 to 36 percent in 2010. Gallup finds exactly the same thing: The conservative share rose from 28 percent to 36 percent while moderates declined from 46 percent to 41 percent.”
The ramifications for the 2012 election are significant according to Galston. If these trends continue, and 2006-2008 were indeed an aberration, Republicans should see increased numbers in state legislatures as well as the Congress following the 2012 election.