Academic journal article Policy Review

The 2008 Democratic Shift

Academic journal article Policy Review

The 2008 Democratic Shift

Article excerpt

AFTER THE 2004 presidential election, Republicans appeared to be in good shape. They had won the presidency, had a 30-seat margin in the House of Representatives and 55 U.S. Senators. Four years later, the situation is very different. Republicans lost 31 House seats, six Senate seats, and control of both chambers of Congress in the 2006 midterms. In addition to losing the presidency, Republicans lost approximately 20 more House seats and at least six more Senate seats in the 2008 elections. Not since the Hoover administration have Republican fortunes been reversed so clearly and precipitously.

These shifts are, we think, indicative of a more fundamental change in partisan loyalties that could reshape American politics for a generation. Starting in the late 1960s and continuing through 2004, Republicans posted consistent, steady gains in standard measures of partisan support, as shown in Figure I. Democrats held almost a 20-point advantage over Republicans in the period from 1952, when the American National Election Studies (ANES) started measuring party identification, through the mid-1960s. Starting in the 1970s and accelerating during the Reagan years, Republicans narrowed this gap to less than five percent, with near partisan parity in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. At the same time, the geographic bases of the parties shifted, with Democrats winning the Northeast and West Coast and Republicans holding almost everything in between.


In four short years, Democrats have reclaimed most of the ground they lost during the Reagan era. Figure 2 shows the percentage of Democrats and Republicans in six different media polls between 2005 and 2008. For each polling organization, the lines show the trend in Democratic self-identification and the trend in Republican self-identification, with Democrats now having an advantage between 5 and 10 percent. The question wording and procedures used by the different polls vary, but the pattern is unmistakable. Pew, Gallup, New York Times/CBS, Washington Post/ABC, and Wall Street Journal/NBC all show party identification moving away from the Republicans. Only the Time polls show gains for Republicans and even here the net shift is toward the Democrats.


In this article, we investigate why voters shifted toward the Democrats following the 2004 election and its short-and long-term implications for party competition. Part of Republicans' difficulties comes from widespread dissatisfaction with the Bush administration and its handling of the economy and the war in Iraq. These are retrospective evaluations whose effects will tend to diminish over time. But another cause of Republican troubles appears to be the ideological positioning of the Republican Party, particularly on social issues. The positions that appeal to the Republican base are repelling moderates the party needs to maintain its long-term competitiveness. These voters are not lost to Republicans--yet. Most consider them-selves independents or leaning or weak Republicans, not Democrats. They are not liberals and remain closer, on average, to Republican positions than those espoused by the Democrats, But they are up for grabs.

The nature of partisan change

WHILE THE POLLS generally agree about the magnitude of the Democratic shift, these surveys do not tell us why such a shift has occurred. To understand why Republican support has fallen off so dramatically, we utilize a unique data source. Starting in 2004, YouGov/Polimetrix has interviewed samples of American voters using Web surveys.

The sample used here consists of 12, 88 r respondents who participated in at least one interview during the 2004 election campaign and were re-interviewed in 2008 as part of a series of surveys for the Economist. This allows us to trace individual voters over this time-span. We can identify actual voters who said they were Republicans in 2004, but who had become independents or even Democrats by 2008. …

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