By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Liberal glee over Barack Obama's election was accompanied in some quarters by smart people who claim to know something about U.S. politics engaged in a smug, even triumphal dance of joy over the defeat of American conservatism.
Gary Kamiya, the executive editor of Salon.com, equated the voters to "dogs" and conservative policy proscriptions to "dog food" when he wrote in a post-election essay that "The painful truth for conservatives is that the dogs aren't eating their dog food—and every national trend indicates that they will never eat it again."
Explaining that the ouster of conservatives from Washington "has been a long time coming," Kamiya opined that the road ahead for the Republicans presented "a wrenching choice: remain true to its increasingly irrelevant and rejected ideology and fade into political insignificance, or remake itself as essentially a more moderate version of the Democratic Party."
What a difference six months make.
The most recent Gallup poll on national ideological leanings, released August 14, shows quite clearly that, while not a majority of the country, today "more Americans consider themselves conservative than liberal," something that is a far cry from the collapse of conservatism analysis Kamiya and others advanced in the wake of the 2008 election.
In the new survey, conservatives outnumber liberals in all 50 states while liberals outnumber conservatives, and this is no great surprise, in the District of Columbia. More to the point, the lead is statistically significant in 47 states while being inside the margin of error in only three: Hawaii, Vermont, and Massachusetts.
The map shown here breaks the data down by gradations, with states where the conservatives' advantage over liberals is greater than 25 percentage points defined as "Most Conservative." Net conservatism registering 20 to 25 points is defined as "More Conservative"; from 10 to 19 points as "Somewhat Conservative"; and from 1 to 9 points as "Less Conservative." Ominously for President Obama, the states that are "Somewhat," "More," and "Most Conservative" resemble a map showing a victory in the Electoral College.
In terms of party identification, the Democrats are still in better shape than the Republicans. The president's party has a significant advantage over the Republicans in 30 states while the GOP leads in only four. But party identification is quite a different thing than ideological affinity.
Voters will often cross party lines to vote for a candidate whom they like better, as Reagan's 1984 landslide over Walter Mondale reminds us; it is very rare, however, that a self-described liberal will vote for a candidate viewed as a conservative and even rarer still that a self-described conservative will vote for the candidate who is perceived as the more liberal of the two major party nominees on a general election ballot.
The fact that conservatives outnumber liberals, however, does not determine the outcome of elections. Moderates, as has been observed many times, hold the balance—which is why the center-right vs. center-left discussion matters—and why the ideology in opposition (as opposed to the party in opposition) can so easily assemble a critical mass that does affect election outcomes. As Merle and Earl Black showed in their excellent book The Rise of Southern Republicanism, Republicans gain when rural and suburban moderate Democrats begin voting like national, or urban liberal Democrats, as they have been doing for six months on issues like the stimulus, the cap-and-trade national energy tax and, now, healthcare reform.
Rather than embrace either side, it appears that the voters are returning to their natural inclinations, which are more moderate-to-conservative than they are moderate-to-liberal. Which is not at all to say a GOP landslide is in the offing in 2010; what it does say is that the death of conservatism, to borrow a line from the great American author Mark Twain, has been greatly exaggerated.