Pollsters Debate America's Political Realignment

Voters younger than 30 voted overwhelmingly , 66 percent to 32 percent, for Barack Obama.
Voters younger than 30 voted overwhelmingly , 66 percent to 32 percent, for Barack Obama. (By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
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By Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 23, 2008

The 2008 election is history, but the battle over what it meant has just begun.

Conservative analysts have insisted that although the Democrats achieved a sweeping victory, it does not indicate a fundamental change. "America is still a center-right country," as Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the House Republican leader, insisted soon after the votes were counted. Liberals call that argument nonsense. The election, wrote John B. Judis in the New Republic, heralds the arrival of "America the liberal," provided that the Democrats play their strong new hand effectively. This election was "the culmination of a Democratic realignment that began in the 1990s, was delayed by September 11, and resumed with the 2006 election."

The notion of a center-right America took hold in the quarter-century after Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, and was firmly entrenched right up to Election Day. Newsweek magazine declared on its last preelection cover that the country remains "America the Conservative." The election results, the exit polls and the polling since Election Day all provide evidence for the liberals' refutation of this conventional wisdom, but the argument is complicated by the fact that it is conducted by ideological commentators and concerns a country that has never been very ideological.

"There's no indication that ideology drove this election," said Andrew Kohut, a dean of American pollsters. "It was driven by discontent with the status quo" -- a pollster's formulation of the venerable slogan "Throw the bums out."

The argument is further complicated by dubious terminology. What does "center-right" or "liberal" mean to ordinary citizens who do not usually participate in debates involving the likes of Boehner and Judis?

The National Election Pool exit poll of 17,836 randomly selected voters, conducted by Edison-Mitofsky, shows how shaky the jargon of political analysis can be. Twenty-two percent of those polled identified themselves as "liberal," 34 percent as "conservative," 44 percent as "moderate." Such numbers are cited by proponents of the "center-right country" argument. But one in five of the self-styled conservatives voted for Barack Obama, and one in 10 liberals voted for John McCain. The moderates were overwhelmingly for Obama, by 60 percent to 39 percent. Those self-identifications obviously meant different things to different people.

"There's a lot of contradictions in what people tell you," observed Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster. Added Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, voters' definitions of political terms are not rigid: "The Beltway notion and the people's notion is very different."

Whatever the appropriate label, substantial majorities of the voters of 2008 want the war in Iraq to end as soon as possible. Large majorities favor affordable health insurance for everyone, a fairer distribution of wealth and income, and higher taxes on the rich. They want to preserve traditional Social Security. They want more effective government regulation of the financial sector. On social issues, the country that elected Obama is tolerant of homosexuality and legal recognition of same-sex partnerships, less so of same-sex marriage. A post-election survey by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a Democratic polling firm, showed that 51 percent said "the government should do more to solve problems."

But how much more? The same exit poll also asked which of two statements respondents agreed with: "On health care, we need to act boldly to address the problems" or "On health care, we need to act step-by-step to address the problems." Forty-six percent agreed with the first statement, but 50 percent endorsed the second.

Such flashes of native caution or conservatism are common. The same poll offered another choice: "I'm more worried that we will fail to make the investments we need to create jobs and strengthen the economy" or "I'm more worried that we will go too far in increasing government spending and will end up raising taxes to pay for it." Voters split 48 percent to 48 percent.

Popkin has a formulation that resolves the inconsistency: "We are center-left on social issues and environment, and center-right on fiscal issues." Yet we have run up huge deficits over the last three decades and are about to add substantially to them -- another inconsistency.

Kohut, who is president of the Pew Research Center, argued that the real ideological significance of this election remains to be established: "Everything will depend on the success Obama has. If the new administration takes us left and it works, then people will be won over." If not, Kohut predicts, the pendulum will swing back to the right.

"We'll know more in a year," Newhouse agreed. "Now it's based on Obama's performance."

In one respect the future is already coming into view -- in the attitudes of the Millennial Generation, voters younger than 30. This group was completely out of step with its elders. They voted overwhelmingly for Obama, by 66 percent to 32 percent. They are much more likely to call themselves Democrats (45 percent do) than does the population as a whole (39 percent). Only among the young do self-identified liberals outnumber conservatives (32 percent to 26 percent). By contrast, among voters 65 and older, conservatives outnumber liberals 40 percent to 17 percent.

"The young people bolted in majorities that we have never seen in past elections -- coast to coast, rural and urban, border to border, educated and uneducated, wealthy and poor, evangelical and nonbelievers," said Peter D. Hart, a Democratic pollster who helped conduct the NBC-Wall Street Journal polls this year. "To have one group of voters in that kind of majority is amazing."

In fact, the outpouring of support for Obama and the Democrats from young voters was consistent with long-standing trends in public opinion. They could be found in the annual survey by the University of California at Los Angeles graduate school of education, a poll of more than 270,000 first-year students.

In the 2007 survey, three-fourths of the students said the United States needs "a national health care plan . . . to cover everybody's medical costs." Nearly 57 percent favored legalized abortion. Six in 10 said they thought "wealthy people should pay a larger share of taxes than they do now." Two-thirds said they believed "same-sex couples should have the right to legal marital status." Eighty percent said "the federal government is not doing enough to control environmental pollution."

These students may be more liberal than their contemporaries who are not in college, but findings such as these suggest that the Nov. 4 results are part of a broader phenomenon. Hart said that "this was a transformational election. Whatever used to be true is not going to be true for the future. We are headed towards a potential center-left nation of tomorrow. From every element of this election, we learn that these young people are very, very different."

The difference goes beyond attitudes. Sixty-two percent of voters age 18 to 29 identify themselves as white, while 18 percent are black and 14 percent Hispanic. Eight years ago, in 2000, 74 percent of young voters were white.

Judis of the New Republic and Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress have been arguing for years that the changing attitudes of young voters and Hispanics, coupled with increasingly Democratic voting patterns among highly educated and wealthier professionals, was producing an "emerging Democratic majority." Judis noted in his post-election analysis that the stage is set for a meaningful realignment of American politics that could last for many years.

Yet realignments are often predicted and rarely occur. One reason is that they can occur only if the least political Americans, the swing voters who consider themselves independents (though they often lean toward one party), have to participate.

Polling assistant Jennifer Agiesta and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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