Big Sort

If This Is a “Change” Election, Then What’s Changed?

Let’s consider what’s not new in this election.

There’s a lot. The last five or six elections have been pushed along by trends that have been in place since the mid-1970s. Despite the extraordinary circumstances this year, the basic political contours of the country haven’t changed (or haven’t changed yet!).

If anything, 2008 appears to be more an extension of the 2006 midterms, an election that changed little in the country’s basic political makeup from 2004—except, of course, for the name of the winning party. More on that tomorrow. Today, let’s consider how static our politics have been.

Churchgoers Are Still Republicans
Thirty years ago, how often you went to church didn’t mark you as a Democrat or a Republican. Evangelicals didn’t have a party.

As the parties sorted according to lifestyle instead of class, weekly churchgoers and evangelicals became reliably Republican voters in presidential races. There’s no evidence this is changing. Oh, there have been plenty of stories about the breakup of the evangelical vote. I’d read the stories, but the more hardheaded pollsters and religion scholars would find, as John Green did last month , that “Barack Obama’s attempt to reach out to Christian voters … is failing.”

In the fall of 2004, George Bush had a 60.4 percent to 19.6 percent edge over John Kerry among evangelicals. This year, Green found , McCain leads Obama 57.2 percent to 19.9 percent. Maybe that will change, but it hasn’t yet, according to Gallup . Evangelicals and churchgoers may be ” lukewarm ” about McCain, but they are still supporting him in numbers just a smidgen below 2004 levels.

Women Voting Democratic
In the 1970s, more women voted Republican than men. Over the past 30 years, they have increasingly voted Democratic. Again, there was a spate of stories about a reversal in this arrangement, but by late September Gallup had women supporting Obama  52 percent to 39 percent.

Fewer Genuine Independents
Political reporters love the story about the rise of the independent voter and the “decline of parties.” But over the past 30 years, the number of true independents has declined, and allegiance to party has grown stronger. (Princeton’s Larry Bartels wrote the  most important paper  on this phenomenon.)

Yes, there are more people who register as independent or tell pollsters they are independent. But almost all these people vote reliably for one party or the other. People tell pollsters that they are independents, but when pressed, they admit that they almost always vote for the same party.

Split-Ticket Voters Disappearing
Split-ticket voting has been declining for the past 30 years, too. We are less inclined to pick and choose between parties. People are picking sides and voting that way up and down the ballot. That was especially true in 2006, when Democrats, especially, cast large numbers of straight-ticket votes in New Hampshire, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

Rural Is Still Republican
Rural voters have been moving toward the Republican Party since the ‘70s. That trend continues, too .  

Replay 2006
Democrats thought the 2006 midterms were a turning point. They weren’t. All these trends stayed in place. Just the results changed. Tomorrow we’ll see why 2006 is a good model for 2008.