What Dems Need: A Moderate Surge
October 1st, 2010
This piece was originally published in Politico.
With the worries over an “enthusiasm gap,” many Democrats are now contemplating a home-stretch election strategy focused on rousing the base. By carrying a left-leaning message, this argument goes, Democrats can reactivate liberal enthusiasm to equal the Tea Party’s passion.
A motivated base is indeed necessary if the Democrats are to keep their congressional majorities. But it’s not sufficient. In fact, in many of the most hotly contested Senate and House races, candidates who match President Barack Obama’s 2008 performance—as outstanding as it was—still won’t win.
In these races, the surge that Democrats need is not among liberals. They need moderate voters.
Why? Let’s do the math.
In 2008, Obama won 20 percent of conservatives, 60 percent of moderates and 89 percent of liberals nationwide—a stellar performance compared to recent Democratic presidential candidates.
However, liberals have always been the smallest segment of the electorate. In no state do liberals make up a majority—or even a plurality. Even in states like California, liberals are outnumbered, according to Gallup, by both independent moderates and conservatives. Twenty-three percent of Californians call themselves “liberal,” versus 39 percent who say they are “moderate” and 33 percent who are “conservative.”
Second, a variety of polls show a national “red shift” since 2008. Gallup measured a 5-point gain in conservatives as a share of the population from 2008 to 2010. According to their research , 42 percent of Americans now consider themselves “conservative” (compared to 37 percent in 2008), 35 percent see themselves as “moderate” (down from 35 percent in 2008) and 20 percent think of themselves as “liberal” (down from 22 percent in 2008).
Conservatives make up a plurality in 31 states, including Colorado, Indiana, Missouri and Florida. They comprise a majority of the population in four states—Wyoming, Mississippi, Utah and South Dakota
The combination of a relatively small liberal base and a shift toward conservatism nationwide means that, for many candidates, matching Obama’s performance in 2008 is not enough to secure victory.
Take a state like Indiana, which, according to Gallup, is now 42 percent conservative, 39 percent moderate and 16 percent liberal. If a Democratic statewide candidate matches Obama’s 2008 performance — by winning 20 percent of the state’s conservatives, 60 percent of its moderates and 89 percent of its liberals — that candidate would get only 46 percent of the vote.
In fact, candidates would fall short in many of the most hotly contested states — including Florida, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Ohio, Nevada and Wisconsin — if their only strategy was to turn out Obama voters.
Even in California, where the share of liberals has dropped from 27 percent to 23 percent of the population, matching Obama’s 2008 performance would garner just 50 percent of the vote. Maybe enough to win. Maybe not.
But all is not lost. Democrats can create their own “new math” by appealing to and turning out moderates. In every state where a base mobilization strategy falls short, Democrats can make up the difference by over-performing with moderate voters.
In Wisconsin, for example, a candidate who wins 68 percent of moderates while still matching Obama’s performance with liberals and conservatives would win. In Indiana, the winning percentage is 71 percent, in Nevada, it’s 66 percent.
Democrats are right to focus on their base. But moderate voters are just as important to Democratic fortunes this fall. While Republicans now have the cushion of a far larger base and can better afford to alienate moderates by indulging the Tea Party’s whims, Democrats can afford no such luxury.
Where the middle lands this fall could well decide the fate of the Democratic majority.
Anne Kim is the director of the Domestic Policy Program at Third Way.