Electoral Realignments: The Revival of an American Genre

This week, Republicans have had to face reality. A Democrat handily wins a special election in a reliably Republican district in New York. In Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, and elsewhere, approval ratings for newly elected Republican governors are plummeting. The president's approval rating is creeping back up. Commentators often attribute these trends to the wrong foreces. For example, Jonathan Chait sees a realignment among disaffected Republicans:

So here you have a key part of the Republican base, whose swing toward the GOP in 2010 was a crucial factor in the party's success. And this group opposes cutting Medicare more staunchly than any other group. The Ryan plan seems almost designed to blow up the Republican coalition.

Chait cites the recent Pew Political Typology for data on these "Disaffecteds" and the key number is that only 15 percent of them favor cuts to Social Security and Medicare as a means to deficit reduction. But the thing is, according to Pew, that Disaffecteds make up 11 percent of the general public, the exact same number as "Main Street Republicans," of whom only 32 percent favor slashing spending on Social Security and Medicare. What this tells me is that cutting Medicare and Social Security is unpopular across the board, except among Staunch Conservatives and Libertarians, but we already knew that. What makes Disaffecteds special is that they're also quite religious, they're poor, they take a hard line against immigrants, and they're skeptical of government and business while wanting the government to do more for the poor.

Pollster.com's Margie Omero makes a similar leap in discussing voters' "buyer's remorse" in electing right-wing governors to their states:

Beneath the surface, these Republicans are losing ground with independents. Nationally in 2010, independents gave Republicans a +19 advantage. In the five states above for which we have exit poll data (FL, IA, OH, PA, WI), the Republican won among independents. Yet in six of these eight re-do polls, independents now say they would vote for the Democrat.

Usually, independents are closet partisans. Exit polls in Florida, for instance, show that independents broke 52-44 for Rick Scott, while comprising 29 percent of the vote. Only 4 percent of that slice voted for someone else. That's roughly the value of your "pure" independent vote. Far more interesting is the fact that the 50-and-older crowd made up two-thirds of the vote for Florida's governor, and they broke for Scott by 51 percent. If new polls showing a decline in popularity of Republican governors included crosstabs showing the number of 50-and-olders in the poll, well, then we'd be getting somewhere. Ideology simply has limited explanatory power.

It's not clear that this demographic is now primed to "blow up the Republican coalition," as Chait says, because they're still pretty conservative. There's no easy way to predict whether they will vote for Republicans next year or not. But therein lies the limitations of using ideology to determine what voters will do.