Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Dems, not Independents, Dominate 21st Century Electortae

Now that President Obama has signed the historic health care reform legislation that pundits claim would never pass, it’s time to put to rest another DC myth —the importance of independent voters. A February 2010 survey commissioned by NDN with a far larger than normal national sample of more than 2700 American adults paints a picture of an electorate that is, in fact, far more partisan—and Democratic—than the one the D.C. punditry describes almost daily. Here are three truths the survey reveals about the American electorate in the 21st Century that everyone concerned with progressive politics should know:

• The American electorate is highly partisan. In spite of inside-the-Beltway assertions to the contrary, independent voters do not dominate U.S. politics or determine the results of most elections. No more than a fifth of Americans are completely unattached to one of the two parties. At least 80-percent identify with or lean to the either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party.
• The large majority of independents are partisans in their attitudes and voting behavior. About two-thirds of independents say they lean to one or the other major parties. Independents who lean to a party vote overwhelmingly for the candidates of that party. They claim adherence to the ideology normally associated with the party to which they tilt—Democratic liberalism and Republican conservatism. And, their opinions on key issues reflect those ideological leanings. Democratic leaning independents favor governmental activism in the economy and support policies promoting economic equality. Republican leaning independents oppose those things.
• The American electorate tilts strongly Democratic. Overall, nearly half (47%) of the national electorate identify with or lean to the Democratic Party as opposed to a third (34%) who identify or lean Republican. The Democratic Party’s decisive edge overall in party ID should give pause to easy acceptance of the memes that America is a “center-right” or even equally divided nation.

Using a seven-point scale developed by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, that first formulated the concept of party identification in the 1950s, to more fully capture the actual complexity of party identification, the NDN February survey reveals that almost two-thirds of those who call themselves independent lean to either the Democratic or Republican Party. This leaves no more than one in five American voters completely unattached to a party. This is more than a statistical quirk or a matter of academic importance: independents who lean to one of the parties are far closer demographically, attitudinally, and behaviorally to those who identify outright with that party than they are to independents who lean to the opposite party or do not lean to either the Democrats or Republicans.

Strong Democrat 18%
Not strong Democrat 12%
Independent, lean Democrat 17%
Independent, not lean 20%
Independent, lean Republican 13%
Not strong Republican 8%
Strong Republican 13%

Democratic identifiers and leaners are clearly different demographically from their GOP counterparts. A majority of those who identify with or lean to the Democrats are female and drawn from the two youngest generations of voters: Millennials (18-28 years old) and Gen-Xers (29-45). Also, upwards of one-fifth of the Democratic groups (and one-third of the Strong Democrats) is minority. By contrast, a majority of those identify with or lean Republican is male and comes from the two oldest generations—Baby Boomers (46-64 years old) and Silents (65+ years old). About nine in ten Republican identifiers and leaners are white and a disproportionately large share resides in the South.

Strong Democrat Not strong Democrat Independent, lean Democrat Independent, not lean Independent, lean Republican Not strong Republican Strong Republican
Male 48% 38% 46% 53% 60% 56% 53%
Female 52% 62% 54% 47% 40% 44% 47%
Millennial 19% 22% 23% 21% 14% 16% 12%
Gen X 34% 34% 29% 31% 26% 22% 29%
Boomer 32% 31% 32% 34% 34% 38% 35%
Silent 14% 14% 16% 15% 27% 24% 24%
White 61% 68% 76% 83% 93% 85% 87%
African-American 21% 12% 7% 4% 1% 2% 2%
Latino 11% 12% 10% 8% 3% 7% 9%
Northeast 21% 22% 18% 19% 13% 21% 14%
Midwest 22% 19% 26% 25% 30% 17% 17%
South 31% 37% 26% 32% 37% 38% 44%
West 27% 22% 30% 24% 20% 24% 25%

Not only do the independent leaners look like those who identify outright with the two parties demographically, they also think like them. Within the more ideologically cohesive GOP, a majority of Strong Republicans (75%), Not strong Republicans (55%), and Republican-leaning independents (53%) perceive themselves as conservatives. Among Democrats, a majority of strong identifiers (55%) and a plurality of independents that lean to the party (41%) say they are liberals or progressives. In fact, the independent Democrats are significantly more likely to label themselves as liberals or progressives than are weakly-attached Democrats.

Strong Democrat Not strong Democrat Independent, lean Democrat Independent, not lean Independent, lean Republican Not strong Republican Strong Republican
Liberal/progressive 55% 33% 41% 21% 7% 13% 7%
Conservative 10% 16% 11% 23% 53% 55% 75%
Moderate 26% 37% 39% 33% 33% 25% 15%
Not sure 9% 13% 8% 18% 5% 7% 3%

These ideological preferences are clearly reflected in the positions on issues held by party identifiers and leaners. Along with those who identify as Democrats, independents that lean Democratic decisively favor activist government (74%) and policies designed to promote economic equality (72%). Like outright Republican identifiers, those that tilt to the GOP overwhelmingly prefer a laissez faire approach to economic and societal concerns (66%) and rugged individualism (73%). In fact, Democratic-leaning independents are more “liberal” and Republican-leaning independents are more “conservative” than those who identify only weakly with either party.

Strong Democrat Not strong Democrat Independent, lean Democrat Independent, not lean Independent, lean Republican Not strong Republican Strong Republican
Government Economic/Societal Activism
Favor government attempting to solve economic/societal problems 81% 71% 74% 50% 25% 42% 24%
Favor government staying out of economy/society 11% 15% 15% 36% 66% 47% 67%
No opinion 8% 14% 11% 14% 9% 10% 9%
Economic Equality
Favor government guaranteeing living standard & income 75% 61% 72% 48% 19% 30% 23%
Favor government letting each person getting ahead on their own 14% 23% 15% 34% 73% 60% 64%
No opinion 11% 17% 13% 18% 8% 10% 13%

Ultimately, the clearest indicator of partisanship is the party for which one votes and, by this measure, independents that lean to a party clearly pass the test. In 2008 upwards of eight in ten independent Democrats and independent Republicans voted for both the presidential and congressional candidates of the party to which they lean. In fact, those who lean to one or the other of the parties were as likely to vote for those candidates as were weak identifiers.
At this early date, vote intentions in the 2010 congressional midterm elections are less clear. More than a third of independent leaners and a quarter of weak identifiers say they have not yet decided how they will vote in November. Even so, a majority of independents that lean Democratic (56%) or Republican (55%) still expect to vote for the congressional candidate of the party to which they tilt. Only two-percent of each party’s independent leaners expects to cross party lines. If past history is any indicator, most of those who say their congressional vote is not yet determined will vote for the congressional candidate of the party to which they now lean.

Strong Democrat Not strong Democrat Independent, lean Democrat Independent, not lean Independent, lean Republican Not strong Republican Strong Republican
Presidential vote in 2008
Obama 96% 82% 87% 45% 9% 19% 6%
McCain 3% 16% 8% 40% 85% 75% 93%
Other candidate 0% 1% 3% 8% 4% 5% 0%
Congressional vote in 2008
Democratic candidate 97% 80% 78% 29% 7% 9% 3%
Republican candidate 1% 9% 4% 26% 83% 85% 94%
Other candidate 0% 1% 3% 16% 2% 1% 0%
Did not vote for Congress 3% 25% 6% 8% 3% 0% 0%
Congressional vote intention 2010
Democratic candidate 90% 60% 56% 9% 2% 5% 2%
Republican candidate 1% 5% 2% 11% 55% 65% 90%
Other candidate 1% 4% 5% 21% 11% 3% 1%
Undecided 9% 30% 37% 58% 34% 27% 7%
Certain to vote in 2010 76% 51% 61% 52% 74% 67% 83%
Believe result of 2010 election is very important 75% 32% 37% 19% 48% 41% 81%

These numbers indicate that the biggest problem facing the Democrats in the 2010 elections is not that those who identify with or lean to the Democratic Party are about to desert it. Nor is it the possibility that non-leaning independents are going to vote overwhelmingly for GOP candidates. Neither of these outcomes appears likely. Rather the major concern for Democratic candidates is a relative lack of intensity among Democratic voters as compared with Republicans. All three Democratic subgroups (Strong Democrats, Not strong Democrats, and Democratic-leaning independents) are substantially less likely to be certain voters or to have great concern for the outcome of the 2010 voting than are their GOP counterparts.
The Democratic Party’s large advantage in party ID puts it in position to dominate U.S. elections and shape public policy for decades to come. Attempting to rally the support of an elusive—and small—bloc of unaffiliated independents will not accomplish that. Inspiring and enlisting Democrats will. President Obama’s signing last week of the HIRE Act jobs bill, the passage of health care reform legislation this past weekend, and the major overhaul of the college loan system passed by the House and contained in the budget reconciliation package that the Senate will approve are all important first steps in rallying Democratic voters to the majority party’s banner this fall and in the years to come.