Collapse of center makes for a different political animal

May 02, 2007|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

We are fast approaching a critical moment in American politics. To fully appreciate what's happening, you need only to understand the difference between a camel and a dromedary.

The one thing media talking heads agree upon is that the center prevails. Turn on almost any of the nation's political talk shows and pretty soon somebody will say how crucial it is for politicians to appeal to registered independents and self-described moderate voters.

They conjure for us an image of the distribution of the American electorate as that of a dromedary's single hump with a large, vital center of thoughtful citizens in the middle, flanked by a downward-sloping share of shrill, radical liberals on one side and grumbling, reactionary conservatives on the other.

In fact, the American electorate has for some time been bifurcating into two rather distinct camps, with fewer centrist voters. The true image is that of the two-humped camel.

On a panel at a Chicago convention of political scientists recently, Emory University's Alan Abramowitz explained what's happening.

"Independents made up 35 percent of the 2006 voters, more than either Democrats or Republicans," Mr. Abramowitz said, based on his analysis of data from the 2006 Cooperative Congressional Election Study. "But most of these independent identifiers were not true swing voters - most of them leaned toward one party or the other, and these leaning independents voted overwhelmingly for their preferred party."

Mr. Abramowitz added this key point: "Moreover, Democratic leaners were just as liberal as other Democrats, and Republican leaners were just as conservative as other Republicans."

Sure, millions of Americans refuse to register with either of the major parties, and they avoid the labels "liberal" or "conservative" to describe themselves ideologically. But what matters more than how they fill out registration forms at their county board of elections or define themselves when pollsters call is the policy opinions and attitudes they espouse and how those opinions translate into votes.

On that score, Mr. Abramowitz demonstrates that not only are liberals and conservatives voting more predictably for Democrats and Republicans, respectively, but their social and economic attitudes are becoming more internally consistent. He says it is easier today to predict, say, how a voter feels about stem cells based on her position on tax policy.

"To a much greater extent than in the past, voters' opinions on economic, cultural and foreign policy issues are closely interconnected with Democrats overwhelmingly on the liberal side of almost every issue and Republicans overwhelmingly on the conservative side of almost every issue," Mr. Abramowitz says.

America seems to be coming to the end of a period of partisan dealignment that began with the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. The so-called vital center is collapsing.

What are the implications for this fundamental, potentially transformative shift in the American electorate?

For starters, the major parties' appeals to centrist voters will become less effective and efficient, and should be de-emphasized in favor of a strategy that favors identifying and mobilizing base voters.

Republicans figured this out years ago. Before the 2000 recount had concluded, Bush campaign pollster Matt Dowd wrote Karl Rove a game-changing memo in which Mr. Dowd marveled that the center of the American electorate had disappeared. They had expected split-ticket voters to account for about one-quarter of the electorate, but the figure was closer to 6 percent.

Mr. Rove promptly announced he would target for mobilization millions of evangelicals who did not turn out to vote in 2000.

After the 2006 elections, one might expect Democrats to respond in kind. Their victories were fueled by votes from their base: union families and households, women, nonwhite voters and younger voters.

Indeed, if Democrats are looking for their counterpart to the evangelical vote, they should turn to unmarried women: They are a majority of American women, they will soon be a majority of female voters, and when they vote, they vote overwhelmingly Democratic. But millions remain unregistered.

Instead, wrongheaded Democratic strategists continue to believe "NASCAR dads" or "soccer moms" hold the keys to a future majority.

Through the hot haze of America's divided desert, too many Democrats still think the electoral animal approaching on the horizon is a dromedary, while the clearer-eyed Republicans recognize it's really a camel.

Thomas F. Schaller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of "Whistling Past Dixie." His e-mail is His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.

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