Who really abandoned Dems?

November 18th, 2010

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This piece was originally published in Politico.

Conventional wisdom is hardening on two fronts in the aftermath of the election—among Democrats about how to regain power and among Republicans about what to do with it.

Many Democrats argue, and now believe, that disenchanted liberal base voters were the ones who stayed home and that this election was a referendum on the economy. Many Republicans, on the other hand, now believe their own press about a definitive, albeit tea party-tinged, mandate.

Conventional wisdom, it turns out, is wrong.

The Obama voters who stayed home this year (the “droppers”) or who switched their vote to Republican (the “switchers”) are neither disgruntled and de-motivated liberals. Nor are they raging tea partiers.

Rather, they are overwhelmingly moderate to moderate conservative. Bipartisanship is what they demand. And the role of government, deficits and the economy are their major concerns.

In a post-election survey by Third Way and Lincoln Park Strategies, we polled 500 droppers and 500 switchers. Our findings make one point clear: The path to regaining or retaining power for both parties isn’t toward the right or left. It’s from the center out.

Here’s what we found:

1. Droppers are more than the Democratic base. Despite arguments that the liberal Democratic base stayed home, we found that 40 percent of droppers are independents. Moreover, just 32 percent of droppers call themselves liberal, while an equal percentage calls themselves conservative. In fact, one-fourth of droppers think President Barack Obama is more liberal than they are, compared to just 16 percent who feel the president is more conservative than they are.

Moreover, the groups regarded as the Democratic base are not overrepresented in these droppers. Traditionally, the most loyal Democratic votes come from African-Americans (93 percent voted Democratic in 2008), voters under age 30 (63 percent Democratic in 2008), ideological liberals (87 percent Democratic in 2008) and lower-income voters (62 percent of voters earning less than $50,000 voted Democratic in 2008).

This year’s turnout was older and more white than in 2008—a reality reflected among the droppers in our survey. Only 13 percent of droppers are ages 18 to 29. They are also mostly white (81 percent); solidly middle class (51 percent earn $30,000 to $100,000 annually, 15 percent earn $100,000-plus), and the majority have at least some college, including one-third with at least a four-year degree.

Would a more aggressive liberal agenda appeal to these droppers? Perhaps to some but certainly not all. About 39 percent of droppers say Obama and Democrats “tried to have government do too much.”

2. Among switchers, it wasn’t just the economy, stupid. Some Democrats argue that had the jobless rate gone down, Democratic losses would have, too. But our findings show 2010 was more than a referendum on the economy. It was also a referendum on the Democratic policy agenda and brand—and Democrats fell short.

For one thing, switchers see Democrats as one tick too far left. Only 14 percent of switchers think both Obama and Democrats are “where you are” ideologically. In fact, just 11 percent of switchers are liberals, while 45 percent are moderate and 39 percent are conservative. Democrats are also a minority — just 15 percent of switchers — while 24 percent are Republican and 53 percent are independent. Moreover, 56 percent of switchers voted for President George W. Bush in 2004.

Second, switchers disagree with Democrats about government. Some 53 percent think Democrats are “too reliant on government to solve problems,” while 66 percent of switchers say Obama and congressional Democrats “tried to have government do too much.” Unsurprisingly, 60 percent also say government is “almost always wasteful and inefficient.”

Third, switchers are unhappy about deficits. The top-ranked reason cited by switchers for voting Republican was “too much government spending” (66 percent cited this). And while 64 percent of switchers say deficits are a “serious problem that are weakening the economy,” three in four don’t think Democrats are either “serious about reducing the deficit” or “responsible with taxpayer dollars.”

3. Republicans won a chance, not a mandate. But as tough as these voters were toward Democrats, they are not forgiving toward Republicans. While Republicans may want to ride high on tea-fueled victories, our findings show that switchers were punishing Democrats — not embracing Republicans.

For one thing, 47 percent of switchers still approve of Obama’s job performance, and 51 percent say they are likely to support him in 2012. Droppers are even more positive—74 percent approve of Obama’s job performance, and 78 percent say they are likely to support Obama in 2012 (including 40 percent very likely).

More damning is this: only 20 percent of switchers say that a major reason for voting Republican was that “Republicans had better ideas.” Similarly, only 10 percent of switchers say the main reason for vote was “to give Republican ideas a chance.”

Mandate? Not quite.

The lesson for both parties here is that droppers and switchers—the swingiest of swing voters—aren’t thrilled with either Democrats or Republicans. But they both want progress. Overwhelming majorities of both switchers and droppers want Obama and the Republicans to compromise rather than stand on principle.

Maybe it’s time to listen.

Anne Kim is director of Third Way’s Domestic Policy Program. Stefan Hankin is president of Lincoln Park Strategies.