Tackling the center-right myth

TACKLING THE CENTER-RIGHT MYTH…. Regular readers know that I’ve been annoyed by the constant refrain from Republicans and mainstream media figures that the United States, even now, is a “center-right nation.” I’d hoped the cold, hard facts of the election results would have proven otherwise, but many conservatives prefer not to believe their lying eyes.

Today, Policy Review editor Tod Lindberg, a fellow at Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution and an informal foreign policy adviser to the McCain campaign, explains that it’s time for the right to realize that the electorate has shifted and the “country’s political center of gravity is shifting from center-right to center-left.”

Here’s the stark reality: It is now harder for the Republican presidential candidate to get to 50.1 percent than for the Democrat. My Hoover Institution colleague David Brady and Douglas Rivers of the research firm YouGovPolimetrix have been analyzing data from online interviews with 12,000 people in both 2004 and 2008. It shows an overall shift to the Democrats of six percentage points. As they write in the forthcoming edition of Policy Review, “The decline of Republican strength occurs by having strong Republicans become weak Republicans, weak Republicans becoming independents, and independents leaning more Democratic or even becoming Democrats.” This is a portrait of an electorate moving from center-right to center-left.

Some analysts like to explain this shift by pointing to Democratic gains and Republican losses among particular regions and demographic groups, arguing that the GOP has growing problems winning over such areas as the Southwest and such groups as Latinos, educated professionals, Catholics and single women. There’s something to this, but the Republican problem is actually larger and more categorical. In 2004, Republicans and Democrats each constituted 37 percent of the electorate. In the 2006 congressional election, Democrats outnumbered Republicans 38 percent to 36 and won big. This year, the Democrats made up a stunning 39 percent of the electorate, compared with just 32 percent for the Republicans. Add the painful fact that Obama outpolled McCain among independents, 52 percent to 48, and you have a picture of a Republican Party that has lost its connection to the center of the electorate. […]

Perhaps, as Rove says, Obama was running to the center. But can anybody make a serious case that people were mistaking him for a center-right politician? Or even a “New Democrat” such as former president Bill Clinton? The McCain campaign was not shy about letting voters know about the elements of Obama’s record that marked him as a man of the left. Perhaps voters simply didn’t believe a word of it, but a better explanation is that a majority of them heard McCain’s warnings and just didn’t mind. Center-left nation, anyone?

Just to reemphasize, Lindberg clearly wishes he were wrong. He’s a conservative who, among other things, was the editor of the far-right Washington Times’s editorial page. He’s not Christy Todd Whitman, urging the Republican Party to move to the center; he’s a conservative urging the Republican Party to acknowledge reality.

I suspect, however, that the party and its base will ignore this kind of analysis, and Democrats everywhere are probably hoping that they do. The longer the GOP is convinced it’s a center-right country, the longer it will take the party to adjust to the new political landscape.