After the Republican Surge

Most Democrats have a hard time being optimistic these days, and it's easy to understand why. The 1994 midterm election produced a swing to the Republicans and a new nationalization of politics that undercut Democrats who had survived in Republican districts and states. A review of polling data suggests that a conservative surge was in evidence as early as mid-1993, as ideological conservatives mobilized against the national Democratic government and its agenda. Three groups in particular--evangelical Christians, lower-income voters, and seniors--rushed to the Republicans, shifting the electoral balance against the Democrats.


But for those able to see through the smoke of battle, there is reason for hope. The conservative surge was a reaction to the defining first year of the Clinton presidency. This is a different moment, and there is plenty of evidence of emergent disillusion with the Republican agenda, leaving Democrats positioned to reclaim many of the voters lost in 1994. Downscale and older voters, the shock troops for the Republican surge, find themselves first in the line of fire and taking heavy losses. More broadly, voters have pulled back from the Republicans on a wide range of issues-welfare, education, the environment, and Social Security. Voters who were hopeful about Republican rule are now increasingly unsure and split on whom to trust, the Republicans in Congress or the president. The challenge for Democrats and progressives now is to rise to the new political moment, find their voice, and mobilize the emergent reaction.


The election of a unified national Democratic government in 1992 set off battles that produced an enlarged, energized, politicized, and mobilized conservative bloc. This historic conservative Republican surge swept away many Democrats who stood in the way and gave Republicans control of the Congress and many state governments. Although the results were felt in November 1994, most of the surge occurred during Clinton's first year. In the face of national Democratic governance, a reaction took hold among ideological conservatives, committed Evangelicals, and Republicans who nationalized their votes. The party balance among voters across the country hardly changed, but conservatives grew more unified and emboldened.

In elections prior to 1994, many moderate and conservative voters supported Democrats for Congress even though they sometimes backed Republican candidates for president. In 1994, Republicans succeeded to an unprecedented degree in nationalizing the election. In congressional districts with a Republican presidential majority, voters held accountable incumbent Democrats who had aligned themselves with the national Democratic politics of the Clinton era.

These Democratic office holders stood undefended. The national struggles around the Clinton agenda failed to rally the left or center, and a large bloc of noncollege-educated voters stayed home. The sense of movement of the Democratic agenda by the end of 1993 concealed the gap that was emerging between Democratic leaders and the potential Democratic popular bloc. When gridlock took hold in 1994, that gap left many potential Democratic supporters disengaged. The Democrats paid a very big price at the polls.

The turn to the conservatives in 1994 proved particularly costly to Democrats because of its socioeconomic character. The surge undercut Democratic support among lower-income, noncollege-educated voters as well as among older voters. In that first year, the national discourse shifted from material concerns that historically have rallied Democrats, such as the economy and jobs, to "values" concerns, such as crime and moral decline. Along the way, the country grappled with a range of issues-including taxes, Medicare cuts, gays in the military, NAFTA, and gun control-that together created a populist and cultural gap that helped push the Democrats away from their broad working- and middle-class base.

The conservative surge, however, was specific to a particular political moment-the battles of the early Clinton presidency and a unified Democratic government pursuing change. The limits of this surge were already evident last year. This is a new moment with a unified Republican Congress pursuing change. The battles of the day center on their governance and vision, and the developing reaction suggests a possible swing back to the Democrats.



During the first two years of the Clinton presidency, the number of people calling themselves "conservative" grew about 7 percentage points. Conservatism also took on increased political meaning. According to the 1994 exit polls, 80 percent of conservatives voted Republican for Congress. Even at the highest point of Ronald Reagan's popularity in 1984, only 69 percent of conservatives proved that partisan. The 1994 election brought a conservative growth and unity behind Republican candidates unequaled in our time. (See "The Conservative Tide," )

Between 1992 and 1994, self-identified conservatives became much more polarized in their ideological thinking. In 1992, conservatives gave "conservatives" a score of 63 degrees on a thermometer scale that ranges from 0 (unfavorable) to 100 (favorable). But a year later the temperature had risen 7 degrees to 70; feelings about liberals dropped 9 degrees in the same period. By contrast, the liberal and moderate blocs seemed sidelined, as the battles of the day failed to engage them. All the elevated political energy was on the conservative side. (These results are based on work by Samuel Popkin at the University of California, San Diego.)

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Conservatives comprised 70 percent of Republican identifiers and that conservative energy likely accounts for the unique increase in the conservative-Republican turnout in 1994. A survey by Times-Mirror found that 55 percent of the likely electorate intended to vote Republican-8 points more than for the registered population. In 1992, the gap was only 2 points. A large-scale Gallup survey confirms the turnout pattern: Republicans comprised 34 percent of actual voters, but only 24 percent of the nonvoters; conversely and ominously, according to CNN-USA Today polls, Democrats comprised just 32 percent of the voters but fully 44 percent of the nonvoters.

While conservatives were being mobilized, energy was being diffused elsewhere on the ideological spectrum. The Democratic Leadership Council's (DLC) postelection survey found that last year's nonvoters-people who stayed home but who had voted for president in 1992-were largely noncollege graduates under 50 years of age. They were disproportionately downscale Democrats who strongly favored Democratic congressional candidates to Republicans. Unfortunately, they were not sufficiently energized to vote.


A conservative swing within two broad groups, committed evangelical Christians and lower-income voters, produced the conservative surge. A surprising defection of older voters also played a significant role. A closer look at these groups tells us a lot about the character of these political developments.

Committed Evangelicals. These voters constitute about 10 percent of the electorate; about half of them live in the South. They were already very conservative in 1992 and provided the core of the George Bush vote. But in the Clinton period, they became even more conservative. In 1994, 63 percent identified themselves as conservative, up 11 points from early 1993, making them the most conservative group in the electorate. In the 1994 exit polls, white, born-again Protestants also increased as a proportion of the electorate. And almost 80 percent voted for the Republicans.

The conservative mobilization and emerging political unity among these committed Evangelicals have given some credence to the idea, put forth by pollster Fred Steeper, that Republican gains in 1994 are a product of the rising importance of cultural issues and comparative decline of economic concerns in the electorate. But, as we shall see below, that is hardly the whole story.

White downscale America. The other push toward conservatism came among white downscale voters. Conservative identification increased 12 points among white voters with high school educations and 13 points among white men without a college degree. These downscale voters evidently soured on the Democratic course as their incomes failed to follow the rest of the economy upward and as the debate in Washington was quickly dominated by taxes, spending, NAFTA, and guns. This downscale bloc is concerned with both economic instability and "big government," and it includes many of the Perot voters who broke Republican in 1994.

Seniors. The downscale swing to the conservatives includes a major component of older Americans: During the first year of the Clinton presidency, seniors became 14 points more conservative. That represents a dramatic turn away from the Clinton agenda by the principal beneficiaries of the New Deal state, which I will return to in a moment.



The conservative surge had a powerful impact on those races in which Democrats faced their toughest tests in 1994. (See "State Conservative Shifts," ) Near double-digit state conservative surges help account for the strong Republican statewide performances in California, Illinois, and Missouri; for the difficult Senate races in New Jersey and Pennsylvania; and for the Republican gains in the Midwest where the conservative surge was greatest (more than 10 points). The energized conservative bloc likely accounts for surprisingly strong Republican showings in Texas (with 43 percent conservative voters), Missouri (42 percent), Illinois (40 percent), and Michigan (40 percent).

The focus of most commentary on the current upheaval is naturally on the 1994 election itself as a defining political event. But the entire conservative advance had already played out by January 1994, the first-year anniversary of the Clinton presidency. After that, little else happened except an intensification of loyalties just prior to the election. The advance came during two defining and distinctive phases of the nascent presidency, during the early Clinton slide and during the late-year Clinton resurgence.

Phase One: The Early Clinton Slide. After an initial burst of enthusiasm for the president and his economic program, support fell off sharply in the spring and summer of 1993. The stimulus bill had been defeated, the investment program pared down, Medicare cuts and Social Security taxes were on the table, and the Democrats were under pressure to cut spending more and raise taxes less in balancing the budget. The prominence of the gays-in-the-military controversy deflected attention from the Democrats' pocketbook issues onto a politically difficult cultural issue.

In this period, according to my own research, the conservative bloc grew about 3 points. This was also confirmed by NBC-Wall Street Journal polling. These early conservative gains came largely among homemakers (whose conservative identification was up 6 points), retired women (up 7 points), older women (up 6 points), and the high school educated (up 6 points).

In this defining period for President Clinton and the Democrats, conservatism was well along the way to consolidating support. The ideological polarization of conservative sentiment was fully developed by May, and conservatives were becoming decisively more Republican: A 25-point Republican advantage among self-defined conservatives in early 1993 turned to a 40-point advantage by the summer. The Republican bloc as a consequence became increasingly conservative, as the proportion of moderates in the Republican bloc dropped 6 points to 31 percent.

In contrast, the political struggles around these early Clinton initiatives did not rally the left or center or produce a countervailing mobilization. The center and left were somewhat demoralized, turning slightly away from the Democrats as the party best able to address the country's problems.

Phase Two: The Clinton Resurgence. President Clinton regained his popularity in the fall and early winter of his first year. The passage of the budget, the introduction of the reinventing government and health care initiatives, the victories on NAFTA, and the Brady Bill brought respect and support all across the ideological spectrum. That is why it is so intriguing that this period also brought the second surge in conservative support: up about 5 points in polls by Greenberg Research and NBC-Wall Street Journal and 3 points in polls by CBS-New York Times.

The gains came among groups that established the character of the conservative surge: up 8 points with voters over 50 and, more important, 10 points with seniors (over age 65); up 8 points with the high school educated and 7 among all those without a college degree. Over the course of the year, committed Evangelicals became 11 points more conservative.

The conservative gains, against the trend of thinking about the president, likely reflected two sweeping changes in public thinking that favored the conservatives. The first was a reaction to health care reform among particular groups that shifted sentiment sharply against government. Conservatives and senior citizens were among the first to turn against health care reform. A majority of conservatives opposed it immediately after the launch. Within a month, two-thirds thought it would limit choice, and three-quarters thought that it simply would create another big government bureaucracy. The rebellion among seniors proved fateful for health care reform and contributed mightily to the conservative surge. While a majority were initially supportive of reform (57 percent), their worries about the risks and doubts about the benefits took an immediate toll, as support dropped 10 points and below a majority in just two months.

The second was a shift in the dominant worries about the country from material concerns to a renewed preoccupation with values. The number of people identifying jobs and the economy as the most important problem dropped 14 points in this period, while concern with crime and moral decline jumped 23 points. With the economy recovering, voters gave greater attention to the moral dissolution to which conservatives seemed better prepared to speak.

Phase Three: Conservative Consolidation. The proportion of conservatives in the electorate remained doggedly constant at this higher level throughout 1994. The late summer and fall brought a new intensity and consolidation within the conservative bloc. In the post-Labor Day, preelection period, intense anti-Clinton sentiment jumped 10 points among conservative voters; now a near majority (48 percent) of them could be characterized as "Clinton haters." The negative energy among conservatives centered on the president, as there was no comparable increase in intense anti-Democratic sentiment. Meanwhile, moderate and conservative Democrats lost confidence in the Democrats and the parties in this late preelection period, with more than one-quarter saying they trusted "neither" party on the issues.

This late, energized anti-Clinton conservatism was most pronounced among the committed Evangelicals (58 percent held intense anti-Clinton sentiments, up 10 points at the end) and among the noncollege-educated men (35 percent, up 8 points). The consolidation of the anti-Clinton right dominated the election, particularly as liberals and moderates disengaged. The evidence of gridlock on health care and other initiatives no doubt contributed to that attitude, but we know from the other data that the lack of engagement was fully evident during the first, defining year of the Clinton presidency.




The Democratic takeover of national politics and the conservative reaction produced a nationalized election in 1994. And that process, rather than any sharp shifts in party loyalties, best explains the upheaval. On the Republican side, voters set aside a range of considerations that previously had allowed them to indulge Democratic incumbents and, instead, cast their ballots with extraordinary partisan consistency at all levels. Thus, in 1994, 89 percent of the electorate cast ballots for Congress that were consistent with their previous (1992) presidential vote. In 1990, just 69 percent and in 1986, just 65 percent cast such nationalized ballots. (This analysis uses findings in Gary Jacobson, "The 1994 House Elections in Perspective," delivered to the Midwest Political Science Convention, April 1995.)

For Republicans, conservatives, white born-again Protestants, and voters in the South, balloting in 1994 for Congress looked like a rerun of their balloting for president in 1988 and 1992. That simple shift had enormous consequences on the ground, particularly in the South.

The Democratic and liberal vote had already been nationalized before 1994 and, thus, was little affected by the process of nationalization in this election. The rationale for voting Democratic for Congress-the ability to deliver for the district or protect social spending-had already pushed these voters to partisan consistency. Among Democrats, 86 percent of voters backed the Democrat both for Congress and for president in 1988 and 1992; that pattern was essentially reproduced in 1994. What was new was the consistency on the Republican side. The conservative surge made the election truly national for the first time in decades by pushing conservatives and Republicans to vote Republican.

Among downscale voters, where the conservative surge was most pronounced, the election was nationalized and then some. Among those who graduated from high school but not college, for example, Democratic support for Congress dropped a stunning 13 points, compared to 1992. That is 8 points worse than their 1988 and 1992 votes for president. College graduates and postgraduates, by contrast, simply voted their presidential preference, which changed little from 1992. Democrats also lost ground beyond nationalization among Catholics (down 8 points) and white men (down 7 points).

The effect of nationalization played out dramatically in congressional districts where the Democrats were historically weak in presidential elections. The Republicans won every open congressional seat in districts that had a Republican presidential majority in 1988 and 1992; they won only 35 percent of the open seats where there had been no Republican majority. Democratic incumbents in districts that had supported the Republican presidential candidate were three times as likely to lose as Democratic incumbents in seats with no such Republican presidential majority: 29 percent of the former lost compared to only 9 percent of the latter.

In these Republican presidential districts, particularly in the South, an energized conservative bloc rebelled against the direction of Democratic politics. The more a Democratic incumbent was associated with national Democratic politics, the greater likelihood he or she would suffer at the polls.

In heavily Democratic districts-ones that had given Democratic presidential candidates 60 percent or more of the vote-Democratic House members lost no ground because of support for the president's program. In districts that had given Democratic presidential candidates 50 percent support or more, down-the-line supporters lost about 4 points, which may have tilted some of these marginal districts. But in Republican districts where Dukakis and Clinton took less than 50 percent of the vote, the Democratic incumbents paid a very high price for aligning with national Democratic politics. Across the country, these strong supporters of the Democratic program lost 7 percentage points off their expected margin; in the South, the loss was a stunning 12 points. Strong supporters of the Clinton agenda in heavily Republican districts in the South faced three times as much erosion as weak supporters did. In weak Democratic districts (less than 40 percent for Clinton), three-quarters of pro-Clinton Democratic incumbents (those who gave him at least 75 percent support) lost their seats. (See David W. Brady, John F. Cogan, and Douglas Rivers, "How the Republicans Captured the House: An Assessment of the 1994 Midterm Elections," in the Cook Political Report, February 8, 1995.)




The conservative surge in 1994, while very powerful, was also specific to the political moment. That moment has changed and so, very likely, has the dynamic of our national politics. To retake the Congress and reelect the president, progressives and Democrats will have to escape the traps of the last two years and join new battles that center on the Republican ascendancy in Congress. Democrats now have the chance to forge their own reaction and their own electoral surge.

The conservative surge embodied the nation's reaction to the largely blocked Democratic national agenda and advanced a strong conservative opposition to government. But the right, contrary to the impressions of Newt Gingrich's Contract with America, did not advance a fully formed conservative agenda -- only the simple and powerful idea that government messes things up.

That was enough to energize voter cynicism. In the antipolitical mood of the last election, only 20 percent of the public trusted government to do the right thing, and only 18 percent trusted Congress-down from 24 percent in 1990 and 39 percent in 1985. The voters in 1994 were deeply skeptical about the government's capacity to advance the public interest: 80 percent said the government is run for the few and special interests, not the people; 66 percent said government is the problem, not the solution. Several national polls confirmed this mood.

The conservative assault on government proved successful only because the political battles of that period allowed conservatives to obscure their broader agenda. But even at the time of the election, voters said they preferred Clinton's economic policies to Reagan's. And while voters on Election Day said they wanted the new Congress to cut government spending, they placed an equally high priority on protecting Social Security and Medicare and on ensuring affordable health insurance for everyone. Clearly, the Republicans would have faced a tougher test had they moved from their minimalist antigovernment discourse to their broader aims in social policy and government regulation. The awakening about the Republicans over the last six months has already produced sky-high doubts about the principal Republican leader, Speaker Gingrich, whose negative ratings are now at 56 percent, and growing doubts about the Congress, whose disapproval ratings are now over 60 percent. Doubts about the Congress jumped 10 points this summer alone, suggesting the price of clarity about the broader conservative agenda.




A self-confident, bordering on arrogant and militant, conservative Congress is now trying to enact its nationalized program. In most areas, they are moving without having laid the groundwork with the public. The overinterpretation of the 1994 election is already apparent in the sharp public turn away from the Republicans, evident even at the end of the first 100 days of the new Congress.

The debates in Congress before the summer had already produced significant movement toward President Clinton and away from the Republicans on handling the economy (a 16-point shift), on handling the federal deficit (17 points), on taxes (15 points), on crime (11 points), on welfare (10 points), and on protecting Social Security (26 points). The belated unveiling of the conservative agenda has led to an unraveling of the goodwill and trust that first characterized this period of Republican governance. At the outset of the year, voters overwhelmingly "trusted" the Republicans in Congress more than the president to address the country's problems: in one poll by 16 points, and in another by 24. But five months later, that advantage had completely evaporated. There is obviously a long way to go, but based on the current evidence, a reaction against the conservatives seems as plausible as a continuing conservative surge.

Democrats lost because they were associated with national Democratic politics and national political institutions, particularly the Congress, that were viewed as corrupt, ineffectual, or irrelevant. Indeed, when looking back on 1994, voters said their anger was directed, above all, at "politics as usual." But Republicans are now associated with a Congress whose image is sliding in nearly all the surveys. With the special-interest lobbyists on display, cuts in school lunches, and threats to Medicare, the public seems poised to sour on the latest version of politics as usual: An extraordinary 59 percent say there is a real danger that the Republicans will go "too far" in helping the rich, cutting government that benefits the poor and average Americans. This sound and fury in Washington sounds less and less like "real change" (27 percent), and more and more like "politics as usual" (68 percent). Just six months into the new Republican Congress, voters are forming new images of a corrupt politics. That is fuel for a Democratic reaction.

The conservative-Republican nationalized vote has likely reached its zenith. With conservatives casting 80 percent of their votes for Republicans-and self-identified Republicans, 91 percent-it is not clear there are more votes to get on the right. Future gains will have to be made on the left and in the center where there is clearly resistance. While some self-described moderates shifted to the conservatives in 1994, the liberal and moderate blocs held firm in their partisan preferences, despite the surge. Liberals cast 80 percent of their votes for Democratic House candidates, and moderates cast 58 percent-both unchanged from 1992. That kept the national Republican congressional vote at around 52 percent, not nearly strong enough to create a new Republican ascendancy.

Moreover, the Republicans could be victimized by their own success in 1994 in creating a Republican orthodoxy: 70 percent of Republicans are now self-identified conservatives. That provides coherence, to be sure, but also creates pressures to push beyond the public's taste for conservative policies. The Democratic Party, by contrast, is ideologically diverse, tilting toward the moderate center, with a significant liberal presence: 60 percent of self-identified Democrats describe themselves as "moderate" or "conservative." The party is led by a president who, for all his political difficulties in the last election, is seen as a "new kind of Democrat," not a "traditional liberal Democrat" (56 to 37 percent). The president is in a position to benefit from the reaction to a reign of conservative orthodoxy.

With little opportunity for partisan gain on the right-and probably on the left as well where Democrats took 80 percent of the vote-the "moderates" emerge as a kind of battleground. They comprise about 35 percent of the electorate, while liberals continue to hold around 22 percent; conservatives now hold 39 percent. Moderates, however, are no simple "centrist" challenge: While they are indeed in the middle on equal rights and abortion, they sound more like "liberals" on the role of government and social welfare and more like "conservatives" on fiscal issues. The challenge for Democrats is how to rally the liberals and moderate center and create an energy that erodes the conservative bloc.




The battle to enact a Democratic agenda over the last few years ended up associating the Democrats with a host of negative developments-taxes, pork barrel spending, gays in the military, gun control, foreign imports, and Medicare cuts-all of which drove downscale and older voters to withdraw politically or join the Republican surge. But the Republican takeover of Congress has turned the tables. The battle to enact a Republican agenda has already associated the Republicans with a new set of negative developments-Medicare and education cuts, tax cuts for the wealthiest and big corporations, special favors for lobbyists and corporate polluters-which could reopen the debate about which party represents working people and understands the needs of older Americans. Downscale voters and seniors joined the Republican surge, but they are already having doubts.

Could these voters, newly angered as the actual Republican program unfolds, join a Democratic reaction to Republican governance? We are hardly lacking the evidence of voter discontent and reaction. What is uncertain, however, is whether the Democrats and progressive organizations can mobilize popular opposition to this reign of conservative Republicanism. If they can give voice to the skepticism and offer something better, this volatile electorate is ready to shift loyalties once again. If they fail, we will see deepening disaffection with government and politics, and not merely a surge of conservatism.o


Table 1.

The Conservative Tide

Growth in the conservative bloc during the Clinton presidency.


Polling organization                    Percentage point gain
Voter News Service exit polling              +7
Greenberg Research                           +9
NBC-Wall Street Journal               +8
CBS-New York TIme                     +3

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Table 2.

State Conservative Shifts

Conservative proportion of the electorate, based on exit polls.



State           1992    1994    Conservative Gain
California      26      36      +10
Illinois        26      40      +14
Missouri        30      42      +12
New Jersey      26      38      +12
Pennsylvania    28      37      +09

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