One question surfaces repeatedly as the pundits obsess over the exit polls. Have Americans lurched to the Left in any meaningful way? If so, are they likely to sign long-term leases in Hotel Obama, or are they simply on loan until they experience the consequences of modern-day liberalism?
Some insist it’s the latter. The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne calls Obama’s election a “clear repudiation of conservative economic ideas,” while Peggy Noonan believes we’re experiencing “a new liberal moment.”
Hey, not so fast!
Let’s obsess a little more over those exit polls. Several commentators have noted the president-elect’s success in winning the hearts (if not the minds) of 20 percent of self-described conservatives while McCain, in contrast, wooed only 10 percent of liberals.
But the more salient finding is that conservatives continue to outnumber their liberal neighbors by the comfortable margin of 34 percent to 22 percent. This nearly matches the edge conservatives enjoyed in the 2004 election (34 percent to 21 percent) and — drum roll, please — is measurably better than the 29 percent to 20 percent conservative advantage in 2000, when George W. Bush was first sworn in.
How many of our liberal friends are willing to acknowledge that, despite spending millions on hateful Moveon.org and Soros-funded campaigns that portray conservatives as war criminals, as haters of the poor, as greedy, ignorant, intolerant, and incompetent, Americans have grown more conservative over the past eight years?
If we also obsess over the state exit polls, conservatives will be relieved to learn that they still outnumber liberals in 42 states. (See map.) With the exception of Massachusetts (where liberals carry the day by 11 points, 32 percent to 21 percent) and Vermont (where they enjoy an eight-point edge), the liberals’ advantage where it does exist is actually quite modest. We’re talking about six points in New York, four in Hawaii, three in Maryland and Rhode Island, two in Connecticut and a tie in New Jersey — not exactly overwhelming endorsements of EU-style socialism. Even in that den of Left Coast liberalism — California — conservatives hold a modest five-point advantage over their liberal brethren.
Elsewhere, the conservative advantage is daunting. We outnumber them by 10 points or better in 32 states; in 21 of those states, the margin is a seemingly insurmountable 2 to 1 or greater. To Senate watchers, conservative dominance in 21 states translates into one thing: When these 42 senators (including 9 moderate Democrats) receive mail, phone calls, and e-mails from their constituents, they’re unlikely to be hearing pleas for higher taxes, more government spending, and a hollowed-out military. On the contrary, there’s an ideological foundation sufficient to sustain a Senate filibuster on virtually any liberal policy initiative.
In the House, the ranks of the moderate Blue Dog coalition grew as well, where more than 50 House Democrats will be representing these overwhelmingly conservative constituencies. “There are more of us than ever,” Tennessee Blue Dog leader Jim Cooper says of the size of the Blue Dog pack. “And we will have a bigger bite.”
Memo #1 to conservative Hill leaders: If you invest the requisite time, energy, and intellectual capital engaging these conservative citizens in the policymaking process, you will be surprised at the influence they bring to bear on their elected representatives — in both parties.
Now, to be clear, the exit polls also contain some sobering alarm bells for conservatives. Between 2004 and 2008 the conservative advantage shrunk in some red states, including Indiana (by 12 points), Virginia (9 points), New Hampshire, Maryland, and Oklahoma (seven points each), and Tennessee, North Carolina, Montana, and Michigan (five points apiece). Virginia, in particular, slipped on the ideological axis from a 2-to-1 bright-red conservative state to one whose residents’ philosophical disposition, while still conservative, merely matches the overall national mood.
True, some of these shifts may be nothing more than insignificant fluctuations from one presidential cycle to the next. But a couple clearly reflect the Left’s enormous effort to change the political (and, by extension, ideological) cultures in heretofore red states such as Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, and New Hampshire. In Colorado, in contrast, while this political “surge” strategy may explain the Democrats’ gain of a seat in both the House and Senate, it did nothing to alter Colorado’s ideological profile. Between 2004 and 2008 the conservative advantage there actually grew unexpectedly, from 13 points (35 percent to 22 percent) to a more robust 19 point margin (36 percent to 17 percent). Go figure.
In short, Americans are measurably more conservative than the lawmakers (and president) who will represent them in Washington. Americans still prefer principled conservative policy solutions and remain instinctively skeptical of Big Government liberal alternatives. Imagine how much more difficult — and depressing — this analysis would be if the polls really did suggest we had reached that “new liberal moment” of which Noonan speaks?
And memo #2 to our conservative leaders on Capitol Hill: Even if you successfully recapture every conservative in America, self-described moderates remain the essential ingredient in any sustainable right-of-center governing majority. Imagine for a moment that every conservative in the nation had voted for McCain and every liberal for Obama. While the race would have been considerably tighter — electors in North Carolina, Ohio, Florida, and Indiana would have voted for McCain, Missouri would have been a clear three- or four-point McCain win, and the race in Virginia would have been a nail biter — Obama still would have pulled out a narrow win.
To prevail in the upcoming debates, conservatives need to rediscover the lost art of selling conservative ideas and how those ideas measurably improve lives. And they need to make that sale not only to conservatives but to the plurality of Americans who self-identify as “moderates.” The victories will follow.
Yes, conservatism has a bright future in Washington. Now, let’s get back to work.
— Michael G. Franc is vice president of government relations for the Heritage Foundation.