Monday, August 17, 2009

The Gallup maps: Why Obama needs to govern from the center

Here's why...

Gallup's in-depth state-by-state analyses of party ID and ideology

A couple of weeks ago, Gallup came out with an analysis, gleaned from six months of tracking polls during the first half of 2009, of party identification by state. The results (in the top map) showed a powerful Democratic hold on the electorate nationwide -- the continuation of the appeal to voters that elected President Obama and handed control of Congress to the Democrats last November.

As I pointed out at the time, although the poll results demonstrated clearly the ascendancy of the Democratic Party, they were not in any way "proof positive of a sustained leftward lurch of American politics," as many tried to claim.

The reason is simple: party identification and ideological affinity are two separate things -- overlapping, yes, but very much separate anyway.

Now, Gallup has released a second study of self-declared political ideology -- based on 160,000 interviews (a huge sample) over the same January-June 2009 period. Gallup asked people whether their views were "very conservative, conservative, moderate, liberal, or very liberal."

The second map above summarizes the results: only in the District of Columbia is there a larger proportion of liberals than conservatives. Even in Massachusetts -- a state with a liberal reputation (e.g., Kennedy and Kerry) that is second only to D.C. in pro-Democratic leaning, according to Gallup, only 29% call themselves liberal, while 30% say they are conservative and 38% self-identify as moderates.

Wait a minute! How can this be? How could Obama and the Democrats sweep the country if all the states they carried are colored one or another shade of green?

The answer is, of course, that most of the moderates and some conservatives joined with liberals in Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina and many other states, because voters were in a mood to fire the Republicans after eight years and two wars in the midst of a scary economic meltdown. The Obama supported by these legions of non-liberals came across as a thoughtful man of (dare I say it?) moderation; a "post-partisan" figure of national unity at a time of deeply felt crisis; a leader they could trust with their futures. To these millions of voters, he was not even an ideologue, much less a leader who would forge a significant shift to the left.

Well, now they're not so sure about that -- so Obama's (and the Democrats) standing in various polls is dropping steadily. To be sure, Democrats can still win in that crucial swath of light-blue states in the upper map that begins with North Carolina, runs north through Pennsylvania and then west to Arkansas, Missouri and Iowa. But all those states also have a moderately conservative bent seen in the green shades of the lower map. Their voters will gladly support Democrats in responsible steps to right the economy and very likely on some other key issues, as well. But they will decisively reject anything perceived as "too liberal."

I should add that I have a bone to pick with Gallup with respect to both of these maps, especially the one depicting ideological preference. It highlights the right and left poles -- while leaving the reader to wonder where the moderates are (no doubt, that makes for bigger news stories and more attention to Gallup). In fact, self-described moderates comprise a huge chunk of every state's population -- from a low of 32% to a high of 43%. Only in the most conservative state, Alabama, do conservatives outnumber the combined moderate-liberal total. So a "center-left" coalition (theoretically) could prevail in 49 states! And in fact, although Obama's victory was not nearly that overwhelming, it was support from moderates and even some conservatives that elected Obama and the sizable Democratic Congressional majorities in 2008.

The President, Speaker and Majority Leader will come to regret it, if they forget this obvious fact.

Any thoughts about this? Post a comment.

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