Bad News for Democrats

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 25, 2011

This has all of the makings of an electoral disaster for the Democratic party:

If you don’t think ideological perceptions matter in American politics, you need read no further. If you do and you’re a Democrat, there’s something to worry about. Even as the terms of the political debate in Washington, in the eyes of many Democrats, have moved steadily to the right, the electorate is increasingly likely to see itself as ideologically closer to the Republican Party than to Democrats. Unless Obama and Democrats can find a solution to this riddle—and find one fast—they will be contesting the 2012 election on forbidding terrain.

In mid-2005, as disaffection with the Bush administration and the Republican Party was gathering momentum, the Pew Research Center asked American to place themselves and the political parties on a standard left-right ideological continuum. At that time, average voters saw themselves as just right of center and equidistant from the two political parties. Independents considered themselves twice as far away from the Republican Party as from the Democrats, presaging their sharp shift toward the Democrats in the 2006 mid-term election.

In August of this year, Pew posed a very similar question (note to survey wonks: Pew used a five-point scale, versus six in 2005), but the results were very different. Although average voters continue to see themselves as just right of center, they now place themselves twice as far away from the Democratic Party as from the Republicans. In addition, Independents now see themselves as significantly closer to the Republican Party, reversing their perceptions of six years ago.

There’s another difference as well. In 2005, Republicans’ and Democrats’ views of their own parties dovetailed with the perceptions of the electorate as a whole. Today, while voters as a whole agree with Republicans’ evaluation of their party as conservative, they disagree with Democrats, who on average see their party as moderate rather than liberal. So when Independents, who see themselves as modestly right of center, say that Democrats are too liberal, average Democrats can’t imagine what they’re talking about.

As the story notes, Democrats risk becoming even more alienated from centrists and independents thanks to the increasingly hard partisan and ideological line that the Obama Administration is taking in its public pronouncements. The base is doubtless delighted to have the President catering so explicitly to it, but this tactic is not a general election winner.

Speaking of the President . . .

They were once among President Obama’s most loyal supporters and a potent symbol of his political brand: voters of moderate means who dug deep for the candidate and his message of hope and change, sending him $10 or $25 or $50 every few weeks or months.

But in recent months, the frustration and disillusionment that have dragged down Mr. Obama’s approval ratings have crept into the ranks of his vaunted small-donor army, underscoring the challenges he faces as he seeks to rekindle grass-roots enthusiasm for his re-election bid.

In interviews with dozens of low-dollar contributors in the past two weeks, some said they were unhappy with what they viewed as Mr. Obama’s overly conciliatory approach to Congressional Republicans. Others cited what they saw as a lack of passion in the president, or said the sour economy had drained both their enthusiasm and their pocketbooks.

For still others, high hopes that Mr. Obama would deliver a new kind of politics in his first term have been dashed by the emergence of something that, to them, more resembles politics as usual.

“When I was pro-Obama in 2008, I was thinking of him as a leader who could face the challenges that we were tackling,” said Adnan Alasadi, who works in behavioral health in Mesa, Ariz. Mr. Alasadi contributed repeatedly to Mr. Obama during his first campaign but says he will not give the president — or anyone else — any more money.

“Now I am seeing him as just an opportunistic politician,” Mr. Alasadi said.

I am sure that in the end, the President won’t have many problems raising money. But that doesn’t change the fact that there is an enthusiasm gap between his supporters, and Republicans. And because of that enthusiasm gap, the President needs to resort to a hardcore ideological message to fire up the base.

Which of course helps further alienate centrists and independents from the Democratic party; the very observation that this post started with.

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