Polling Shows Democrats' Tough Road in 2012

Can Democrats reconstruct 2008’s success by deconstructing 2010’s defeat?  November’s election should have convinced Democrats hope alone is not a 2012 strategy.  This was only reaffirmed by the recent release of exit polls taking us inside the 2010 numbers.  Without major work across the political spectrum, what was a sure thing in 2008 for Democrats could be a far longer shot in 2012.

Last month, Edison Media Research/Mitofsky International polled 17,504 November voters (margin of error +/- 0.7%).  A similarly extensive poll was also taken in 2008.  Together, these give us far greater insight into what happened in 2010 than simply counting congressional seats.

The first compelling variable is ideological participation.  Both liberal (from 22% in 2008 to 20% in 2010) and moderate (from 44% to 38%) turnout declined as a percentage of voters.  In contrast, conservative participation surged (from 34% to 42%).  As a result, Democrats found a receptive audience in just 58% of the 2010 electorate.

The second compelling variable is each group’s partisan split.  Democrats increased their percentage only among liberals (from 87% to 90%).  Among moderates (from 61% to 55%) and conservatives (from 23% to 13%), Democrats’ percentages fell.  As a result, Democrats lost appreciable ground in approximately 4/5ths of 2010 voters. 

Simply multiplying the ideological and partisan percentages produces a good approximation of the change from 2008 to 2010.

                        2008 %                 2010 %                      

                        Dem     Rep           Dem     Rep                    
Liberal             19.14     2.42           18         1.6                    
Moderate         26.84    16.28         20.9       15.96
Conservative     7.82     25.5           5.46      35.28

Total                53.8      44.2           44.4       52.8   

In two years, a 9.6% Democratic exit poll advantage swung into an 8.5% deficit.  In American politics, such swings are enormous.  It is valid to ask this:  How close is this data to actual outcomes?  Because Americans vote by geography, not ideology, it is impossible to know for sure.  However, we can test our calculation versus 2008’s actual outcome.  Our calculations gave Democrats 53.8% of exit poll votes, while Obama received 52.5% of the actual vote.  Our calculations gave Republicans 44.2%, while they received 46.3% of the actual votes.  Exact?  No.  Convincingly close?  Yes.

Of course, using this data to look forward is another matter.  Certainly the argument resonates that special circumstances were factors in 2010 that won’t be in 2012.  For one, Obama was not on the ticket.  That is important, especially because he received the highest popular vote percentage of any Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. 

It could also be argued that the worst of the economic downturn has passed.  Many variables attest to this, though the most notable one—unemployment—remains, and is projected to remain, unusually high through 2012.  Finally, the case could be made that the swing voters have swung—or even may be inclined to swing back.

However, to all these points, this question can be raised in rebuttal:  What if the change from 2008 to 2010 continues or increases? 

Obama was not on the ballot in fact, but he was in the minds of the biggest ideological voting block: conservatives. 

Many variables point to economic recovery, but an important and emerging variable today is surging energy prices.  What if this continues? 

Finally, what if voters have not ceased to move?  Another sizable decrease in Democrat totals brings Obama in below 40% in 2012.  Seem implausible?  November 2010’s outcome was unthinkable in November 2008 too.  Also, historically Presidents losing reelection, lose badly.

Over the last century, five Presidents have lost reelection: Bush I (1992), Carter (1980), Ford (1976), Hoover (1932), and Taft (1912).  Ford’s 47.9% of the popular vote was far and away the outlier.  Bush I received just 37%, Carter 41%, Hoover 39.7%, and Taft 23.2% of the popular vote. 

Democrats’ strategy must extend beyond hope that the worst is over.  These exit numbers show they must do three things to guarantee a 2012 White House victory—each progressively harder. 

First, they must bring liberal participation back to 2008 levels.  While only accounting for an additional 2%, these voters heavily favor Democrats.

Second, they must reverse their double dip—both in participation (-6%) and partisan preference (-6%)—among moderates.

Both are doable, because Democrats did both in 2008.  Still, these may be insufficient.  Even restoring liberal and moderate participation to their best-attained levels still leaves Democrats under 50%. 

So third, they need to somehow maintain their conservative numbers and diminish conservatives’ support of Republicans. 

These are tall orders.  But for a Democrat strategist, necessary ones.  While 2008 was a bet Democrats seemingly could not lose, 2012 may require a trifecta to ensure a winner this time.