Election 2010: Polls show that more voters consider themselves conservative

Americans cast their ballots Tuesday in House, Senate and statewide races.
By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 6:33 PM

As politicians and commentators debate the meaning of Tuesday's elections, one thing is clear: Conservatives are back.

Exit polls showed a surge of voters identifying themselves as conservative. Nationally, the electorate was more conservative than in 2006 by nine percentage points and more so than in 2008 by seven points. Poll findings in swing states mirrored those numbers, with Ohio showing an 11-point rise in conservative voters and Wisconsin a 10-point increase.

Pollsters had been predicting stronger enthusiasm on the right than on the left for much of the year, and the conservative base did not disappoint.

"I'm not surprised that the center wouldn't have turned out in this election," said Andra Gillespie, a professor of political science at Emory University. "All of the rhetoric and the tone indicated this was a race where they would not be engaged."

Early evidence of high interest among the conservative grass roots surfaced last year in the town halls held during debates over the federal health-care law. Those events encouraged the burgeoning tea party movement, with conservatives crowding the meetings to argue against the legislation, which eventually passed.

On Tuesday, "the electorate was more conservative because anti-government people were angry, and they turned out," said Darrell West, who studies government at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank. "People who have a more moderate view about government didn't turn out, and their voices didn't get represented, and that could have a big impact on what Congress does."

Conservative leaders and think tanks hope to ride their supporters' energy and use it to shape a governing agenda.

"Now that the American people have made their voices heard at the polls, it is time to look forward and to hold lawmakers accountable," former House majority leader Dick Armey, chairman of tea-party-affiliated FreedomWorks, said in a statement Wednesday morning. "The guiding principles of lower taxes, less government and more freedom need to carry over from campaign rhetoric into concrete action. Words will not be enough; action is needed in order to set the country back on track."

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who has been a leader of the tea party movement, endorsing candidates and raising money for their campaigns, called the victories part of an "awakening going on in our country."

David Keane, chairman of the American Conservative Union, told the New York Times that Tuesday's victory was even more significant than the GOP landslide of 1994 because of a new Republican dominance in state legislatures. The GOP won the majority in both houses of Congress in 1994.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, highlighted a policy paper with governing guidelines for the new Republican leadership in the House and the larger conservative minority in the Senate. It advocates a freeze in spending, a repeal of the health-care law and an effort to "get control of government" by rolling back "recent government interventions."

Gillespie said she expects that many of those ideas will become priorities and that Democrats and the White House will have to adjust.

"The people have spoken, and they want President Obama to focus on jobs, and he's going to be forced by his right flank to have deal with the deficit," she said. "It's going to be very, very tough for him."

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