In seven short years, the American electorate has radically changed, as voters' priorities have shifted to the economy and away from such wedge issues as abortion and gay rights, as well as away from the threat of terrorism and from the war in Iraq, according to a comprehensive survey released Thursday morning by the Pew Research Center.
From 2002 to 2009, voters' partisan identification has moved from virtual parity -- 43 percent Republican and 43 percent Democratic at the height of George W. Bush's popularity in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 -- to a massive Democratic advantage today of 53 to 36, a 17 percentage point split, by far the largest difference in the past two decades.
The Pew survey is a testament to the miscalculations of the Bush administration and of the Republican leadership in Congress. The two were handed an extraordinary opportunity to build on an outpouring of public support in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Instead, those chances to revive a Republican majority were squandered on a mismanaged invasion of Iraq and dissipated by ill-advised culture war offensives, as well as by disclosure of corrupt lobbying and spending scandals in Congress under Republican rule.
"There is an enormous amount of material about the deterioration of the Republican Party in this survey," Andy Kohut, who runs the Pew Research Center, told the Huffington Post. The GOP is currently 88 percent non-Hispanic white; it has grown steadily older, from an average of 45.5 years in 2000 to 48.3 years in 2009; it is increasingly dependent on self-identified white evangelicals (35 percent of today's GOP, on Southerners (39 percent of today's GOP), and on voters who describe themselves as conservative (66 percent of today's Republican electorate). Those who espouse conservative views on the family, homosexuality and civil liberties -- a population which was in the majority in 1987 -- have fallen to the 50 percent level or below, the Pew survey found.
"The Republican Party is facing formidable demographic challenges," Kohut wrote in a report describing the new Pew findings. "Its constituents are aging and do not reflect the growing ethnic and racial diversity of the general public. As was the case at the beginning of this decade, Republicans are predominantly non-Hispanic whites (88%). Among Democrats, the proportion of non-Hispanic whites has declined from 64% in 2000 to 56%, as Latinos and people from other racial backgrounds have joined the ranks of the Democrats."
The issue environment has, in addition, become much more favorable to the Democrats. When voters were asked "What One Issue Would Matter Most in Your Presidential Vote?," the number identifying Iraq and Afghanistan fell from 22 to four percent between 2004 and 2009. "Moral values" dropped from 27 percent to 10 percent during the same period. Conversely, the percentage identifying the economy and jobs has more than doubled, from 21 to 50 percent, with smaller, but still significant, gains for voters selecting health care and education as the most important issue.
"The decline in the importance of moral values as an issue in a possible election has come across the board, but the drop has been especially large among Republicans and working-class voters," Kohut wrote. "In 2004, 45% of Republicans cited moral values as their top issue; now just 21% do so, compared with 47% who mention the economy and jobs....Slightly more than half (51%) of older white working-class Republicans and leaners cited moral values in 2004; now just 23% do so."
While Republican identification has nosedived, the percentage of voters who say they are conservative has remained consistent through this decade. In 2009, 38 percent of voters described themselves as moderate, 37 percent as conservative and 19 percent as liberal -- the same split found in every Pew survey over the past nine years.
The Republican Party has been bleeding from both its conservative and moderate ranks. In 2005, 52 percent of conservatives said they were Republican while in 2009, only 41 percent of conservatives said they were aligned with the GOP. The percentage of self-identified Republicans who call themselves moderate has dropped from 23 percent in 2005 to 16 percent this year.
Among poor people, Republican support, already low, has been dropping further, while among the affluent -- those with incomes over $100,000, a traditionally Republican segment of the electorate -- Democrats have gained parity with the GOP.
At the same time, the percentage of Republican identifiers who say their own party is doing a good job in standing up for such traditional Republican issues as reducing the size of government, cutting taxes, and pressing for conservative social values has shrunk radically, from 67 percent in 2004 to 24 percent now.
While Democrats have made substantial gains in the partisan identification of voters, the party does not have a clear mandate to move to the left across the board, the survey found. Although the Pew findings represent good news for Democrats, there are some costs to their gains. Many of the new Democratic voters are not as liberal as traditional party loyalists, so that support for such initiatives as expanded health care, progressive taxation, and a stronger safety net may face opposition from within party ranks.
On the basic issues of the liberal-conservative divide, the Pew study found a level of polarization "never before seen" between Democrats and Republicans over the fundamental role of government on such questions as whether the government "should help more needy people, even if it means debt," "guarantee everybody enough to eat and a place to sleep," and should "care for those who can't care for selves." On each of these issues, Pew found, there is more than a 30 percentage point difference in the views of Democrats and Republicans.
Independent voters, many of whom have become Democratic "leaners" providing crucial margins on election day, fall right between the two partisan camps. More worrisome for the Obama administration and Democratic congressional leaders is the Pew finding that "the overall balance of public opinion on the government's responsibility to provide for the needy has shifted to the right" despite the onset of a severe recession.
The survey found that "the share of Americans overall who favor helping more needy people even if it means greater debt has fallen from 54 percent in 2007 to 48 percent today, and there is a comparable drop in the share who say the government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep (from 69 percent in 2007 to 62 percent today). This rightward shift is starkest among independents. Today, just 43 percent of independents say the government should help more needy people even if it means going deeper into debt, down 14 points since 2007. And over this period the number of independents who favor guaranteeing food and shelter for all has fallen 13 points from 71 to 58 percent."
These numbers amount to a warning for the Obama administration, which so far has been able to maintain strikingly high favorability ratings while pursuing an agenda calling for a major expansion of the safety net, especially in health care.
The Pew survey did not find evidence of anti-business sentiment growing. Fully 76 percent of voters agreed with the statement, "The strength of this country today is mostly based on the success of American business" -- the same percentage as in past years.
Conversely, public support for labor unions appears to be weakening: the percentage of people agreeing that "labor unions are necessary to protect the working person," has dropped from 74 percent at the start of this decade to 61 percent this year. The decline was sharper --- from 76 to 53 percent, a 23 point fall -- among independent voters than among either Democrats or Republicans.
While large majorities of voters continue to support tough environmental regulation, there is less willingness to accept economic costs as worth the benefit of improving environmental conditions. The percentage of respondents who said "protecting environment [is] a priority even if it causes slower growth and/or job losses" dropped from 69 to 51 percent between 2002 to 2009. Similarly, the percentage of respondents who said voters "should be willing to pay higher prices to protect the environment" has fallen from 62 to 49 percent over the same period.
On cultural -- as opposed to economic -- matters however, the country appears to be moving decisively towards greater social tolerance: One of the biggest attitudinal changes over the past two decades among voters, Pew found, has been on public views towards homosexuals. The percentage of people who say "school boards ought to have the right to fire teachers who are known homosexuals" has fallen from 51 percent in 1987 to 28 percent this year. At the same time, the percentage who do not think school boards should be empowered to fire gay teachers has grown from 42 to 67 percent.