Some commentators–both conservative and liberal (or, I guess, “progressive”)–have suggested that this election hammers some nails in the coffin of the long-standing notion–a bedtime story we conservatives like to tell ourselves?–that America is a center-right nation.
Let’s look at the exit polling data. In 2008, the respondents broke 22/44/34 liberal/moderate/conservative, with 60 percent of the moderates and 20 percent of the conservatives supporting a candidate who seemed to present himself as a post-partisan moderate (remember there’s not a red America, there’s not a blue America, there’s a United States of America?). In 2012, the ideological distribution was remarkably similar: 25/41/35, with 56 percent of the moderates and 17 percent of the conservatives voting for a president with a very liberal–er, progressive–record. Going back to 2004, the distribution was 21/45/34, with Kerry winning the moderate vote 54-45. Taking people at their word, what I see is remarkable stability in the conservative proportion, and a slight bleed from moderate to liberal. As for the voting behavior of the folks in the center, I’m tempted to say that they tilt a teensy bit leftward or that they regard Republicans as further to the right than Democrats are to the left. My liberal–er, progressive–friends will tell me that the latter is the correct characterization. I’m not persuaded by the evidence they’ve offered and so will remain agnostic.
Of course, I’m not sure I know what these folks mean when they call themselves moderate, so I’m inclined to look elsewhere for evidence regarding the ideological color of the electorate. Here, again, there is some interesting exit polling data. In 2008 and 2012, voters were asked some version of this question–Which is closer to your view: “government should do more to solve problems” or “government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals”? In 2012, 51 percent of respondents chose the second alternative and 43 percent the first. Let me repeat: 51 percent chose the more conservative option. By contrast, in 2008, 51 percent chose the first alternative and 43 percent the second. You can read this evidence in two ways. Perhaps we’ve moved to the right in the past four years, as we favor less government now than we did in 2008. Or perhaps we thought the government was doing too little in 2008 and too much now. Who knows where the Goldilocks “just right” position is? In any event, it’s fair to say that the 2012 response does not indicate a leftward shift in our opinion.
You can draw the same conclusion by looking at the Obamacare question, which shows that 49 percent of the respondents want some or all of it repealed, while 44 percent would expand it or leave it as it is. By the way, 26 percent favor expansion, while 25 percent favor total repeal. In this case, the middle tilts rightward, not leftward.
But there are also some taxation and economic populism questions that point–albeit a bit ambiguously–in a different direction. Thus, for example 60 percent of voters favor an increase in taxes (13 percent for all, 47 percent for those earning over $250,000), while only 35 percent oppose any tax increases. Furthermore, 55 percent think the U.S. economic system favors the wealthy, while only 39 percent think it’s fair to all. There seems, in other words, to be a healthy plurality, if not majority, for sticking it to the plutocrats.
But 63 percent think that taxes shouldn’t be raised to cut the budget deficit; only 33 percent support that policy.
So let me get this straight: 47 percent of the respondents think we should raise taxes on those make $250,000 or more, 13 percent we should raise taxes on everyone, but only 33 percent think we should raise taxes to cut the deficit. Again: 60 percent think we should raise taxes (mostly on people wealthier than we are), but only 33 percent support using tax revenues to cut the deficit. I guess the other 27 percent think we should raise taxes either for the sake of fairness or to support further spending.
Please note the consistency of the following numbers: 25 percent describe themselves as liberals; 26 percent would expand Obamacare; and 27 percent would raise taxes for purposes other than cutting the deficit. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the liberal core of the electorate, hovering right around 26 percent.
They wouldn’t be pleased with the grand bargain I find in these exit polls. 60 percent are comfortable with raising taxes, while 51 percent want the government to do less. Could we not raise taxes a bit in exchange for reducing the size of government a bit? If I were utterly confident (as I am not) that additional revenues would go to retiring the debt and that people were serious about cutting government, I’d support this grand bargain.
Let me put it another way: I’m almost willing to pay the government more to leave me alone. But we all know how protection rackets work. They never really leave you alone.
I’m almost finished: on social issues, as I noted in a previous post, the exit poll respondents favored positions that are either libertarian or liberal–pro-abortion and pro-same sex marriage. My previous caveats still apply: as these weren’t genuinely national polls, opinions on both issues may actually tilt a little further rightward. That said, however, the trendlines on these issues seem to be going in different directions, with the pro-life side gaining some ground and the defenders of traditional marriage losing ground, the former slowly and the latter apparently rapidly.
So here’s my grand conclusion to the question I originally posed: the shifts in public opinion have for the most part (with the exception of same-sex marriage) been modest. But there are gradual demographic shifts with which we all have to contend, and those in some measure enable the present occupant of the Oval Office to make big changes in our laws. Elections, as he reminded us, have consequences.
Especially in this venue, I would never claim that winning elections is the first thing. But politics and government matter in so many ways, so we have to figure out how to win some elections.