Democratic leaders are becoming increasingly worried about the long-term consequences of the drawn-out and contentious presidential nomination race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In the past few weeks a number of prominent Democratic elected officials, including Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, have called on Hillary Clinton to consider ending her campaign in the near future on the grounds that by staying in the race she is damaging the party’s chances of winning the presidency in November. Pundits and journalists have also argued that the extended nomination battle between Clinton and Obama is allowing the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, to get a head start on the general election campaign while the two Democrats are training their fire on each other.
Recent public opinion polls appear to support the argument that the extended nomination battle between Clinton and Obama is helping John McCain. Despite a national political climate that is very unfavorable for the Republican Party due to President Bush’s low approval ratings and an economy that appears to be on the verge of a recession, John McCain has been either leading or running even with both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in recent national polls. In the April 7th Gallup tracking poll, for example, McCain was leading Clinton 47 percent to 45 percent and tied with Obama at 45 percent each.
Part of the explanation for John McCain’s relatively strong performance in recent polls is that his reputation as a maverick and a moderate allows him to appeal to some independents and Democrats who don’t particularly care for President Bush. In addition, however, there is considerable evidence that McCain is benefitting from defections by Clinton and Obama supporters who say that they would rather vote for the Republican candidate than for the other Democrat. According to the Gallup tracking poll, for example, almost 30 percent of Clinton supporters say that they would vote for McCain over Obama and almost 20 percent of Obama supporters say that they would vote for McCain over Clinton.
The key question, of course, is whether Democrats who are disappointed by the outcome of the nomination race will actually carry through on these intentions and vote for the Republican presidential candidate in November. The answer to this question will undoubtedly depend on how the nomination contest is resolved and whether the losing candidate is perceived by his or her supporters to be strongly supporting the winning candidate. Providing that this happens, however, large-scale Democratic defections to John McCain would appear to be highly unlikely.
Recent elections in the United States have been characterized by very high levels of partisan voting. In 2004, according to data from the American National Election Study, over 90 percent of voters who identified with or leaned toward the Republican Party cast their ballot for George Bush and almost 90 percent of voters who identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party cast their ballot for John Kerry. The results were similar in the 2006 congressional elections, except that Democratic voters were a little more loyal to their party’s candidates while Republican voters were a little less loyal.
Figure 1. Rate of Democratic Defection in Presidential Elections by Decade
Source: NES Cumulative File.
Party loyalties were not always this strong. Democrats in particular were once notorious for defecting to the Republican candidate in presidential elections. As the evidence displayed in Figure 1 shows, in the three presidential elections between 1972 and 1980, an average of almost 30 percent of Democratic identifiers voted for the Republican presidential candidate. In 1984 and 1988, Democratic defections were also quite high — almost 20 percent. Since 1992, however, the Democratic defection rate has been much lower — less than 10 percent, which is about the same as the Republican defection rate.
Figure 2. Trend in Democratic Identification by Ideology
Source: NES Cumulative File.
Why have Democrats been much more loyal to their party’s presidential candidates in recent elections? It’s not just that the Democratic candidates have been more appealing — it’s also a result of an ideological realignment that has taken place within the American electorate. As the data displayed in Figure 2 show, since the 1970s Democratic identifiers have been trending to the left. During the seventies, almost a third of all conservative voters identified with the Democratic Party. By the first decade of the 21st century, only about one-seventh of conservative voters identified with the Democrats. Meanwhile, Democratic identification remained stable at about 60 percent among moderate voters and rose from 84 percent to 90 percent among liberal voters.
Figure 3. Rate of Democratic Defection in 1992-2004 Presidential Elections by Ideology
Source: NES Cumulative File.
The ideological realignment of the American electorate since the 1970s is largely responsible for the dramatic increase in loyalty among Democratic voters (It almost certainly goes back further but the NES surveys did not include an ideology question before 1972). During the seventies and eighties, there were large numbers of conservative “Nixon Democrats” and “Reagan Democrats” who were willing to cross party lines to vote for Republican presidential candidates. Today, however, there are relatively few of these conservative Democrats left. As the results displayed in Figure 3 show, the defection rate among conservative Democrats has remained considerably higher than the defection rate among moderate or liberal Democrats. Almost one-fourth of conservative Democrats voted for Republican presidential candidates between 1992 and 2004. But conservatives make up a much smaller share of the Democratic electorate today: conservatives made up only nine percent of all Democratic voters in 2004 compared with 24 percent in 1972. In contrast, liberals made up 57 percent of all Democratic voters in 2004 compared with only 38 percent in 1972.
Today’s Democratic electorate is very different from the Democratic electorate of the 1970s and 1980s — it is almost as solidly liberal as the Republican electorate is solidly conservative. Four years ago John Kerry, a very liberal Democrat running against an incumbent Republican president in a time of war received almost 90 percent of the vote among Democratic identifiers. This November, barring a major disaster at the Democratic convention, it is highly unlikely that many Democratic voters will cross party lines to vote for John McCain. It is equally unlikely that many Republican voters will cross party lines to vote for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. In contrast to the fluidity and unpredictability that has characterized the nomination contests in both parties, the voting patterns in November will be highly predictable and consistent with those seen in other recent general elections — close to 90 percent of all votes will be cast by party identifiers for their own party’s presidential candidate. Whichever party turns out more of its own supporters on Election Day is likely to emerge as the winner.
Dr. Alan Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University, and the author of Voice of the People: Elections and Voting Behavior in the United States (2004, McGraw-Hill). He can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.