Outlook: The Electorate's Left Turn
Sorry, GOP: Research Shows Nation No Longer Leans Right

Tod Lindberg
Editor, Policy Review; Fellow, Hoover Institute at Stanford University
Monday, November 17, 2008 1:00 PM

"Here's the main thought Republicans are consoling themselves with these days: Notwithstanding President-elect Barack Obama, a nearly filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate and the largest Democratic majority in the House of Representatives since 1993, the United States is still a center-right country. ... Here's the stark reality: It is now harder for the Republican presidential candidate to get to 50.1 percent than for the Democrat. My Hoover Institution colleague David Brady and Douglas Rivers ... write in the forthcoming edition of Policy Review, 'The decline of Republican strength occurs by having strong Republicans become weak Republicans, weak Republicans becoming independents, and independents leaning more Democratic or even becoming Democrats.' This is a portrait of an electorate moving from center-right to center-left."

Tod Lindberg, editor of Policy Review and former informal adviser to the McCain campaign, was online Monday, Nov. 17 at 1 p.m. ET to examine the broad movement among American citizens away from conservative positions, and the potential effect of that on the Republican Party.

A transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors


Tod Lindberg: Hi, Tod Lindberg here, looking forward to chatting with you for the next hour. Let's get the party started.


Harrisburg, Pa.: It is impossible to project the future, yet aren't younger voters tilting to the Democratic Party in a larger proportion than in previous generation?. Also, might this have some long term impacts? Have you found evidence of the percent of people who change political leanings? It is my understanding that people basically shift little or shift slowly over their lifetimes. Thus, is this is a progressive generation that is coming of voting age, they are potentially likely to remain progressives at least for several decades. Does this sound correct?

Tod Lindberg: Your impression sounds right, but we'll need to look at the data. I think the GOP is especially out of sync with younger people on issues like gay marriage, which the rising generation doesn't see as an issue at all -- marry whomever you want! But remember that elections are won and lost over that 10 percent of voters in the middle, who are unlikely to have strong party ID and may in many instances not be paying much attention to politics except near elections. Both parties will play for these voters (unless they are very foolish).


Alexandria, Va.: I have always been an independent.

I support a smaller government. But I also support a smaller government that stays out of my bedroom, doesn't tell me what I can and can't do with my body, doesn't denigrate or demonize me because I dare to disagree with them, doesn't have the audacity to try to define or legislate morality, and doesn't claim the high ground on what a Christian is or isn't. On top of this, I find it laughable that the people doing this have turned out to be biggest offenders.

This is the #1 reason why I have voted Democrat more often than not. The Social/Fundamentalist Conservatives have seized control of the Republican Party and have destroyed it. I'm happy to debate taxation and social welfare with the traditional Conservative. Unfortunately those people have been forced into either going along with their narrow-minded, far-right colleagues or finding themselves being left out in the cold.

Tod Lindberg: Thanks, that's a good illustration of the GOP problem. I think you can craft an appeal to voters based on economics and foreign policy, but by the time the GOP lost the congressional majority, all the party on the Hill was really interested was social issues. That's great for the base, but it has little additional appeal


Tampa, FL: How does redistricting magnify any shift right or left? It seems to me that as the Dems control more state governments, they will use redistricting to cram conservatives into a few "super-conservative" districts that are radically right, and then draw the boundaries of the all the other districts to move them to the left, although to a lesser degree.

Tod Lindberg: That's a game two have played. One factor influencing the polarization of our politics is surely the tendency to cram like voters into districts in order to try to protect incumbents. In many cases, the biggest threat is from a primary challenge, i.e., from someone who doesn't think you are hard-core enough, on whatever side.


Winnipeg, Canada: I think the centre-left vs. centre-right argument is a case where both are correct. If you look at the American electorate compared to the rest of the G-8, your voters are definitely right of centre: gay marriage is no longer a big deal in Canada, for instance, and most Canadians would have trouble naming the religious affiliation of their Prime Minister or local member of parliament. The rest of the industrialized world looks at universal health care as a given, not a threat from the creeping hordes of socialism. On the other hand, there is no doubt that your electorate is moving away from the right, and that the electorate overwhelmingly feels more comfortable with Obama's more centrist approach than the Bush era's more exreme right-wing approach. Younger voters went overwhlmingly for Obama, so it's not hard to foresee where the political future lies for the next few cycles. I'm not sure what I would do if I were a strategist for the Republicans: hold on tight to beliefs and wait for the pendulum's inevitable swing back, or change a few spots and hope for better short-term results while alientaing the base. Not pretty either way.

Tod Lindberg: Well, you're right, but that indicates a baseline shift between the US and Europe/Canada. I'm interested in the movement of where people in the US are over time, and that direction has been leftward enough to justify my calling the tilt. Our center-left is Europe's center-right.


Wokingham, UK: Twists and turns within electorates come and go and dreams of permanent majorities fly away. But it does seem arguable that this time all of us are having, in the moment of the great bail-out, to re-think very seriously what had seemed like certainties. Marx's belief that the capitalist system is not self-sustaining and self-correcting is looking much more objectively plausible at the moment than it has since the 1930s.

Tod Lindberg: I think we have some serious problems, and greed is definitely a factor. Capitalism does indeed depend on a few things that it doesn't generate on its own, such as trust and those good old Weberian "Protestant ethic" virtues such as thrift (remember thrift?) and patience. We're a little short on some of those these days.


Boston, MA: Interesting take. I do think you are partially correct, in that given the current environment, the electorate shifted left. But I think there is a bigger issue for the GOP than just a shift of center left or center right. The issue for the GOP is the center. The GOP has swung so far to the right that they have alienated independents, moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats that Reagan won in 1980. Without those, the GOP become a regional party that will eventually be broken in 2.

Tod Lindberg: I think you may be underestimating the survival instincts of the GOP. This system is so geared toward two major parties that they almost always adapt to changing conditions. If FDR could gather urban African-Americans in the north and southern segregationists in one tent, the GOP has a problem it can respond to if it wishes.


Fort Collins, Colo.: Hi Mr. Lindberg,

When I talk to conservative folks out here in the West (I consider myself an independent, by the way), it seems they have a fundamental disagreement with me not on policy, but on facts. In 2004 I was told there were WMD in Iraq (covered up the the MSM), Iraq had a role in 9/11, global warming is a conspiracy, etc. It would seem most of these people get their information from talk radio and Fox TV opinion shows. I wonder if this denial of reality is preventing the Republican party from issuing a nuanced and thoughtful platform that might appeal to those that aren't die-hard conservatives. For instance, for years we heard night after night after night that the Iraq war was going well. Couldn't some Republican have said it wasn't going well and here are some options?

Tod Lindberg: I think we had the 2004 election over whether you could still be president after having taken the nation to war on a mistaken premise. Bush won. People were a lot less forgiving two years later, and that was a product of the happy talk about the war as conditions deteriorated. One of the reasons I signed up as an advisor to the McCain campaign is that he was so right about what was happening for so long -- and how to fix it. Obama is in a much better starting position as a result.


Conservative in Name vs. Substance: The center-right notion always struck me as wrong to begin with because polling would often show that people preferred liberal positions but still called themselves conservative. Is this just a re-alignment of substance and label?

Tod Lindberg: That's an interesting question. I think some people like to think of themselves as conservative even if they have a few progressive or liberal views. But really, the critical shift is from strong GOP to weak, weak, to independent, indy to weak Democrat, weak Dem to strong. That's real motion out there.


Ellicott City, Md: I've noticed since the advent of Fox/CNN/MSNBC that the term moderate has gone out of style -- everyone is liberal or conservative. Even your column avoided moderate. Why? I believe there is an attempt to push the electorate to one extreme or the other.

Tod Lindberg: Not me! That's an interesting observation. I think it may have something to do with the way in which the party's true believers seek to punish their own "moderates" as squishy.


Baltimore MD: The dearth of libertarianism: Tod, one of the things I found interesting about this year's election was how a candidate such as Ron Paul could be touted as a "libertarian" because he is against the Iraq war and for smaller government. He is also profoundly anti-choice and, I am willing to bet, all for keeping drugs criminalized. One might think that a real libertarian party (free market orientation, small government, a commitment to individual freedom to marry as you choose, control your own body, etc.) could gain traction in the U.S., but it's never really happened. (Personally, I am an old style liberal Democrat, but I can see the attraction of true libertarianism.)

Tod Lindberg: Libertarianism has always seemed to me like an intellectual critique or thought experiment, not a political platform you could run on. At its best, it forces people to explain themselves and justify their actions more effectively. Government power is problematic, after all, even though we can't live without it.


Youngstown, NY: Thanks Tod. I've always felt that the country has been Center-Left for years but has been soundly discouraged by the Right's never ending PR campaign to define liberalism as somehow unpatriotic or not in their best interests. Now that citizens are facing the real possibility of actually having things taken away from them (401(k), homes, jobs etc.), they are doing what is any politician's worst nightmare: paying attention. I believe this will push the country even more leftward for quite some time.

Agree or disagree?

Tod Lindberg: Going to have to disagree. I think we really have seen movement, and it has been quite recent, the past two elections especially. Now comes the interesting question of whether the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress will make people happier or provoke a backlash.


Boston: What is the definition of center-right and center-left? Does it change over time? It seems like it would have to change, but then wouldn't the country always by definition be simply "center"? (With that definition changing over time as well.)

Tod Lindberg: Hey Boston, we're not doing epistemology here! You're right that the center is the center, but it moves on substantive issues, and that's what we're trying to track.


Balto, Md.: As a 40-year Republican I was appalled by two things during the Bush Regime: lying, wasteful, profligate spending but more importantly learning that MY political party had decided that MY particular religious views weren't as good as the Fundamentalist Evangelicals'... and worse, were in fact a part of the Party Plank.

Don't you think a return to pure politics would benefit the GOP much more than continuing to try to impose "our morality on 'them'"?

Tod Lindberg: Yep. But there's a way to do that without dissing the evangelicals.


Re: FDR's big tent: I will disagree with your take on the Democratic party in the 1930s. It wasn't that Southern Democrats like Strom Thurmond were in the party because they were so strongly behind FDR and the New Deal but were still anti-Republican, the party of the Reconstruction.

Tod Lindberg: OK, but they did business together, and that matters.


Laurel: Three points: I thought Chris Cillizza was closer to truth about the apparent "re-alignment" this vote represents. Obama polled about 4% better nationwide than did John Kerry, so the states that had been closer than that went the other way. If President Obama is facing a similar economic crisis in 2012, those voters and then some could go the other way.

The more important result in my opinion (can't remember if it was you who wrote this) is that the McCain states look precisely like a map of the places being left behind by the knowledge economy. In 2004, Bush won every one of the 16 states with the smallest percent of college graduates. Kerry won 11 of the 13 with the most; the two exceptions were Virginia and Colorado, which went the other way in 2008. Those two states plus New Mexico and North Carolina are ex-Red states that have made a conscious decision to attract more college educated people and modernize their economy.

The Republicans have now failed to elect a freshman Senator in two consecutive cycles; and I think this represents a repudiation (by the rest of the country) of Southern political values personified by the likes of Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Trent Lott and Bill Frist. They're not going to be competitive again until they come up with a suburban version of their message that doesn't make Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani look like such outcasts at the national level.

washingtonpost.com: 5 Myths About an Election of Mythic Proportions (Washington Post Outlook Section, Nov. 16)

Tod Lindberg: Just your first point: Could be. But I think that would represent a shift back to the right, not a restoration to the default settings of the electorate. Look at how many ways Obama had to win this election. He could pick off the state of his choice from the Bush states in both 00 and 04. And look at how many ways McCain had: More or less 1!


Reston, VA: Mr. Lindberg, Can you explain why the American Conservative Party (ACP) has had its supporting membership double since the election?

Tod Lindberg: Sure, they're worried about what an Obama administration is going to do. Nobody said the election result was going to be bad for conservative fundraising.


Seattle, WA: I think that the notion of center-right vs. center-left is both correct and wrong because Americans, with some notable exceptions, is not strongly ideological, but focuses more on the practical. The GOP's gains in 1994 showed that they are good at railing against government but 2006 and 2008 showed that they aren't good at governing. When ideology trumped practicality, that's when political parties often run into trouble. Given that the more moderate and practical members of the GOP were the first ones to get defeated, how can the GOP restore itself?

Tod Lindberg: "When ideology trumped practicality, that's when political parties often run into trouble." Boy, is that right. The answer is leadership. At the moment, look for it starting to come from the GOP governors. But I think it's true that you need people on Capitol Hill who get it as well.


San Diego, California: I have always been a liberal Democrat, and it seems to me that while there is a radical right in the US, there is no equivalent on the left. Having lived as an exchange student in Ireland, I saw just how conservative we are as a country. Their conservative parties are more liberal than our liberal parties. It was hard readjusting to our political climate when I returned. We need to offer universal health care, we need to make sure there is a safety net for the least fortunate among us, to pretend otherwise is to exacerbate the problem.

Tod Lindberg: I'm afraid I think that's just your perspective talking. There really is a hard left in the United States, and it is better organized than ever, thanks to the Internet.


Evanston, Illinois: Hey Tod, the NY Times ran an article today on National Review. One line that stuck out was this "I am really and truly frightened by the collapse of support for the Republican Party by the young and the educated," he said. "He" being David Frum. Do you concur?

washingtonpost.com: At National Review, a Threat to Its Reputation for Erudition (NY Times)

Tod Lindberg: I think if you're not making much of an effort to appeal to the young and the educated, then it's not a great surprise that they're going elsewhere.


Concord, N.H.: Loved the description from the 1st post on why the GOP lost independent voters like me. That pretty much nutshelled it for me. I think there is a huge swath up the middle that feels the same way & would love to see the extreme social conservatives turn into a fringe element.

To the poster from Winnipeg: I had thought Canada was slowly moving towards a far more conversative bent - wasn't your most recent election won by the social conservatives?

Tod Lindberg: Good point on Canada, btw. Let's remember that politics is ebb and flow. We're dealing with change over time, and it's not just happening in the US.


Philadelphia, Pa: I haven't seen the stats for this, but what percentage of under-40, college educated (or above) voters went for Obama (and more generally, the Democrats)? That's a demographic that, if the Democrats can hold onto it, should be very helpful in future elections.

washingtonpost.com: Try looking here for tons of information on polls: Post Politics: Polls


Annapolis, Md: I'm not a statistician, but I wonder at how you can construct a trend line with all of the variables that have occurred particularly during the election but also in the past few years. The idea that the nation is moving left seems to be contradicted by a whole bunch of initiatives in such supposedly-left-leaning places like California. Your thoughts?

Tod Lindberg: Well, but look at that vote on gay marriage. The "anti" side won, but by about 10 percentage points less than the last time CA voted on the question, if memory serves me right. My claim is not that we're now a left-wing country. That "center" designation matters.


Bowie, Md.: There are many dualities in America today - 1. While many say that they are race neutral, they tend to live in homogeneous neighborhoods. 2. While the media present most African Americans negatively, hip-hop/rap record sales are astronomical, major sports figures are making millions in endorsements. 3. While many say that they don't like illegal immigrants, everyone here except for Native Americans are immigrants (and it is very difficult to tell an illegal immigrant just by looking at him or her).

I say all of this now because I see that it relates to your topic. No one group is a monolithic entity, there are all kinds of people here living in their own dualities - liberal hawks, conservative doves, pro-choice Christians, etc. What I see for tthe future is America holding onto some basic core values, but the gray area gets bigger and certainties get narrower.

Tod Lindberg: Basic core values: Freedom, opportunity, boundaries to disagreement. I'll take other contributions!


GOP Governors: While I agree that the GOP Governors will be a driving force, who among them would be considered as a leader for a revival? Palin is a hard-right religious fundamentalist, and Arnold is considered almost a heretic for working with Democrats on Democratic issues. I think the problem is best seen through Romney's experience; he ran Massachussetts well, but during the primary had to almost totally deny and decry any accomplishments he made because they weren't conservative enough. This tension between effective and 'conservative enough' is what will keep the governors from doing well.

Tod Lindberg: You're making the mistake of underestimating Palin. She has a lot of homework to do, and she has to decide if she wants to be a hero to social conservatives or to offer an appeal of a broader range, but she is a huge political talent. Bobby Jindal looks to me to have a bright future. Remember, the Arnold problem is that he can't run for president because he wasn't born here. Otherwise, he'd be running.


Richmond: Even many religious leaders (Saddlebrook Church) are questioning the right's assumption they had the Christian vote. I'm thrilled that Christians are starting to vote for helping those in need as Jesus taught rather than the hate-mongering of Rove and such. If the Republican party drops the hate and reconnects with Christians, respecting their religion, they will survive.

Tod Lindberg: OK, that's an opportunity to plug my book, The Political Teaching of Jesus (HarperOne). I'm taking it.


But there's a way to do that without dissing the evangelicals.: Is this a matter of faith or do you know such a way?

Tod Lindberg: It's all about mutual respect. Hear people out. Don't demonize. Don't be hatin' on one another, as my kids say.


Hard Left: Tod, Who is the 'hard left' in the US? Seriously - what groups compose the hard left?

Tod Lindberg: I'd say MoveOn is pretty left-wing. No?


Richmond, Va.: But can Palin get smarter? More savvy, sure, but she's dumb. Really. You heard her answers... or ramblings.

Tod Lindberg: She was unprepared, which is different from dumb. This is so reminiscent of the way in which people saw Reagan -- until it was too late!


Tod Lindberg: Time for me to check out. Thanks, everybody.


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