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The Biggest Challenge Facing Both Romney and Obama

Unless something dramatic happens—fast—the general election will soon be upon us, with Mitt Romney as the Republican nominee, and President Obama fighting for a second term. But if the primary season has proven largely predictable, the next phase of the presidential campaign will likely have more than a few surprises in store. Romney and Obama will be competing on a playing field more polarized along partisan and ideological lines than at any time in recent history. Both candidates will face daunting challenges in their quests to forge a majority coalition.

Let’s look, first, at ideological trends in the electorate as a whole over the past two decades. As Table 1 shows, there has been a long-term decline in the percentage of Americans who consider themselves “moderate” and a corresponding increase in both liberals and conservatives. (This trend, based on Gallup surveys, is broadly consistent with what the political scientist Alan Abramowitz has found using data from the National Election Study.) Twenty years ago, when Bill Clinton battled George H. W. Bush and Ross Perot, a plurality of Americans thought of themselves as moderate. Today, conservatives are the plurality—a distinction with a difference.

                                       Table 1: The Electorate

                                   1992                2011                Difference

Moderate                     43                    35                        -8

Conservative                36                   40                       +4

Liberal                          17                    21                       +4

This trend has affected all partisan groupings within the electorate. Among Republicans, moderates have decreased by 8 percentage points since 2000, while conservatives have increased by 9 points (Table 2). A predominantly conservative party has become overwhelmingly so, reshaping both the congressional party and the primary contest.  A candidate running on George W. Bush’s agenda of twelve years ago could not win the Republican nomination today; Mitt Romney understood this and planned his 2012 campaign accordingly—for example, by turning his back on Bush’s conciliatory immigration policy, which allowed him to attack Rick Perry from the right, blunting Perry’s momentum when the Texan was riding high.

                                        Table 2: Republicans

                                    2000                2011                Difference

Moderate                       31                     23                        -8

Liberal                            6                        4                        -2

Conservative                 62                      71                       +9

The conventional wisdom is that since the Bush/Gore election, Republicans have moved much farther to the right than Democrats have to the left. By some metrics that may well be the case; as measured by ideological shifts, it is not. As Table 3 shows, the moderate share of the Democratic Party’s rank and file has decreased by 6 percentage points, and the conservative share by 5, while liberals have surged by a full 10 points. A dozen years ago, self-styled moderates were the dominant plurality among Democrats, but no longer. The “base” that Obama seeks to rally in 2012 is notably different from the one to which Gore appealed in 2000. Still, Democrats remain far more ideologically diverse than are Republicans, a reality that complicates not only the management of Democratic majorities in Congress, but also the conduct of quadrennial national campaigns.

                                        Table 3: Democrats

                                    2000                2011                Difference

Moderate                      44                    38                        -6

Conservative                 25                    20                        -5

Liberal                           29                    39                       +10

A similar trend, though somewhat more muted, has occurred among Independents, who now constitute a record-high 40 percent of the electorate: moderates’ share (though still a plurality) is down, and conservatives’ up (Table 4). Although Independents are relatively unlikely to be social conservatives, they are nonetheless remarkably heterogeneous. In New Hampshire, where they constituted 47 percent of the Republican primary electorate, 31 percent backed Ron Paul’s libertarian-leaning candidacy, while 30 percent supported the moderately conservative Mitt Romney and 22 percent, the more moderate-sounding Jon Huntsman.

Still, the modest rightward tilt noticeable among Independents at the end of 20th century has intensified, with almost twice as many identifying as conservatives than liberals. In part because many voters have decided that Obama is more liberal than they thought during his first presidential campaign, he will be hard-pressed to repeat his remarkable 2008 showing among Independents (52 percent) this fall.

                                        Table 4: Independents

                                    2000                2011                Difference

Moderate                       44                    41                       -3

Liberal                            21                    20                       -1

Conservative                  29                    35                      +6

In the context of a more polarized electorate, both Obama and Romney will be challenged to maintain a precarious balance between the full-throated liberalism and conservatism that their respective bases are demanding and the stances that can appeal to the increasing group of Independents and shrinking but still pivotal band of moderates.

However one may characterize this diverse assemblage of non-base voters, one thing is clear: their voting pattern has become increasingly volatile, producing three consecutive “surge” elections in which control of large numbers of congressional seats (and in 2008 the presidency as well) shifted from one party to the other. If one of the presidential candidates can convincingly portray the other as outside the mainstream, the 2012 election may well be the fourth.

William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor at The New Republic.