Which of these is true of 1994, and which is true of 2010?
A) 55 percent of independents voted for Republicans.
B) There was a 7 percent jump in the number of conservatives over the previous presidential year.
C) Republicans were 36 percent of voters (the same percentage as in 2006’s disappointing election).
If the preliminary exit polls hold steady, each statement is true of both 1994 and 2010.
If you look at exit polls going back to 1994, the party makeup of today’s electorate (according to the preliminary exit-poll data) is nearly identical in terms of party ID to that of 1994. It is also important to note that in 2006, when Republicans were washed out of the majority, the makeup was similar as well: 36 percent Republican, 38 percent Democratic. The even partisan split represents a big positive shift for Republicans from 2008 but does not represent a significant structural change in the electorate.
However, the ideological makeup of the electorate has shifted rightward in a way that mirrors the shift between 1992 and 1994 — and places today’s electorate to the right of 1994′s. Current projections show that 41 percent of voters today consider themselves conservative, while only 39 percent consider themselves moderate — an increase in conservatives of 7 percent over 2008. In 1994, only 37 percent were conservative, and 45 percent were moderate, an eight-point edge of moderates over conservatives.
All of which is to say that this election is being driven in part by a rightward shift of the electorate that looks a lot like the shift from 1994. Some pollsters were overly optimistic in their predictions of the numbers of conservatives out there, particularly in some key states. (See CNN’s polling in Wisconsin, featuring more conservatives than moderates, something that did not play out in the exit polls at all. CNN showed Johnson with an eight-point lead in mid-October, and tonight it turned out the race is a nailbiter.) However, at a national level, it looks like conservatives may just barely outnumber moderates this year.
So is this what tipped the election? Conservatives alone are not enough to replicate a 1994 scenario. The other major factor that defined 1994 was the breaking of independents heavily for GOP House candidates. Today’s partisan makeup looked a lot like 1994’s. So did the voting behavior of each party group. In both elections, voters that were Republicans and Democrats voted heavily (over 90 percent) for their own party. And in both elections, independents broke for Republicans by nearly identical margins, with 55 percent of independents picking Republican candidates.
Tonight, folks feeling a little bit of déjà vu have good reason.