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Is the Republican Comeback Just a Flash in the Pan?

Did the 2010 election demonstrate that the electorate is moving to the right? I thought the answer was obvious, but my colleagues Ed Kilgore and Ruy Teixeira have argued that it did not, or did so only marginally. Jay Cost, who along with Sean Trende, dispenses political wisdom for Real Clear Politics, takes issue with Kilgore and Teixeira. Who is right?

I think to understand the dispute, you have to distinguish between two very different questions. First, did the election demonstrate movement to the right? On that question, I agree with Cost and not with Kilgore and Teixeira. But second, did the electorate, in moving to the right, lay the groundwork for a natural Republican majority? On that question, I agree more with Kilgore and Teixeira. So let’s separate these two questions.

Has the electorate moved rightward? Kilgore and Teixeira acknowledge that the percentage of conservatives in the actual electorate this November—and their proportional support for Republicans—increased dramatically by ten percentage points from 2006. But Teixeira, whose analysis Kilgore quotes at length, introduces contrary evidence. According to a Pew poll, the percentage of conservatives has only increased three percentage points among registered voters from 2006. So conservatism among registered voters has not gone up “much more” from 2006 to 2010.

Still, an increase of three percentage points (in contrast to a three percent increase) is not chopped liver, and Cost cites the Gallup Poll showing a larger increase. But there is a more important point buried here. The fact that the conservative tilt was much stronger in the electorate that actually voted than among registered voters is not insignificant: it indicates that conservatives were more energized than their liberal or moderate counterparts. And intensity has much more to do with political outcomes than the sheer numbers that opinion polling registers.

If half the 41 percent of the electorate that is conservative is marching in the street, crowding local political meetings, and raising money for their candidates, and only a tenth of the moderate and liberal electoral is similarly agitating for their causes and candidates, the conservatives’ influence over election outcomes and over the political debate in the country will be much greater. And that’s a lot of what happened in 2010. Outside of a few Washington organizations, the liberal electorate that took to the streets in 2006 and 2008 was demoralized and demobilized. And the results showed not just in the election, but in the political questions that are currently being debated in the press and in Congress. It’s not whether to have a single-payer health care system, but whether to have a national system at all. It’s not whether social spending should be increased, but whether it should be frozen or cut.

Has the rightward shift laid the groundwork for a new Republican majority?If the conservative trend among the electorate endures for a decade, yes, then Republicans will be back in the driving seat in American politics. But the conservative trend after 2008  was not the result of the gradual erosion of the liberal-moderate majority, but of the failure of the Obama administration to stem the downturn that began in 2008. If the economy revives, or if it doesn’t, and if a Republican president and Congress take office in 2012 and fail to revive it, then the trend toward conservatism will halt, and you may even see the kind of shift leftward that took place in 2006 and 2008. Of course, Cost could argue that the kind of programs that Republicans are proposing will revive the economy and enjoy the same kind of popularity as social security. I have my doubts that these programs, which mostly consist of turning back the Keynesian clock, will do the trick.

Cost argues that redistricting, which will be under Republican control in many states, could help to ensure a GOP majority in Congress. Certainly it’ll help, but the Democratic redistricting as a result of the 1990 elections didn’t prevent Republicans from capturing the House and the Senate in 1994. As I suggested in my post-election piece, the Obama administration’s failure to seize the political opportunity afforded by the Great Recession has not necessarily opened the way to a new Republican majority. More likely, it will lead to a period where the two parties exchange power, and where neither can establish a long-lasting majority.