Bad News for Democrats, and Republicans

>A Pew Center survey released on July 16 has some interesting evidence on how Americans position themselves in comparison with our three parties -- the Tea, Democratic, and Republican, that is. On a left-right continuum, voters now place themselves much closer to the Republican Party than to the Democratic Party. The ideological gap between the Democratic Party and the average voter is about three times larger than the separation between that voter and the Republican Party.

Remarkably, the electorate places itself a bit closer to the Tea Party movement (which they place to the right of the Republican Party) than to the Democratic Party. In contrast, five years ago, average voters placed themselves exactly halfway between their ideological perceptions of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Independents now position themselves twice as far from the Democrats as from the Republicans. 56 percent of Independents see the Democratic Party as more liberal than they themselves are, compared to 39 percent who see the Republican Party as more conservative.

This would appear to be very bad news for the Democrats in 2010 -- and, in the short term, it probably is. But other findings in the survey may give the Democrats hope. Democrats are more ideologically diverse. Only 42 percent term themselves liberal or very liberal while 65 percent of GOPers label themselves conservative or very conservative.

Bill Galston argues in The New Republic that Democrats' greater ideological diversity is a problem for them. As he puts it: "Democrats' greater diversity means that party leaders are bound to have more trouble managing their coalition than the Republicans will theirs."

That may be true at times, but ideological homogeneity is not always a blessing for a political party. Internal diversity can moderate a party's message and make it more appealing to a wide variety of voters, including those vital political independents. A homogeneous party has little internal check from movement toward its extremes.  

This is evident in the GOP primary victories of extreme candidates like Rand Paul in Kentucky, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer in Minnesota.

In these three instances, the GOP has hurt its November chances by embracing candidates who are less appealing to independents and moderates. A more ideologically diverse party is less likely to make mistakes. So in the long term, the GOP's homogeneity hardly makes it the "big tent" of the GOP of old. And "big tent" parties are more likely to thrive over time.

Presented by

Steven Schier

Steven E. Schier is the Dorothy H. and Edward C. Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College. His columns have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Washington Monthly, Brookings Review and other publications. Visit his Web site here .

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