Democrats, Not Independents or Republicans, Will Decide Who Wins in 2010 and Beyond

Like the constant buzz of the vuvuzelas during the World Cup, leading members of the inside-the-Beltway punditry like Chris Cilliza and Chuck Todd have generated an ever louder chorus of warnings recently that "angry" independent voters will determine the outcome of the 2010 midterm elections and, in so doing, threaten the Democratic Party's current congressional majorities.

Actually, however, it is not what independent-or even Republican-voters do that will determine what happens in this November's elections. It is what Democrats do, or perhaps not do, that will be decisive. This is true for two reasons. First, a significantly greater number of voters now identify with or lean to the Democratic Party than to the GOP. Second, only a relatively small number of politically uninvolved and disinterested voters are independents that are completely unattached to either of the parties. As a result, the big election story in 2010 will be the extent to which the large plurality of Americans who call themselves Democrats shows up at the polls this fall, and not the voting preferences of unaffiliated independents or Republicans.

This is a quite different situation from 1994, the last time there was a so-called midterm "wave" election in which the GOP wrested control of Congress from the Democratic Party. That year, the two parties were dead even in party ID at 44% each. A year later, the Republicans held a narrow three-point lead over the Democrats (46% vs. 43%).

But, America is a different country now than it was in the mid-1990s, with a far more ethnically diverse electorate and a new, strongly Democratic generation, the Millennials (born 1982-2003), coming of age. These emerging groups comprise the core of a new, potentially long-lasting majority Democratic coalition.

This year, in sharp contrast to 1994, the Democratic Party holds a party identification advantage over the Republicans. In a June national survey conducted for NDN by highly regarded market research firm, Frank N. Magid Associates, 47% of voting age Americans identified with or leaned to the Democratic Party, well above the 33% who identified with or leaned to the Republican Party and the 19% who claimed to be unaffiliated independents. Even among registered voters the Democratic advantage over the GOP was 11 percentage points (47% vs. 36% with unaffiliated independents dropping to 17%). These numbers were replicated in an early July Pew survey showing the Democrats with a 49% to 42% party ID lead over the Republicans among registered voters.

As is the case in virtually every U.S. election, almost all of those who identify with or lean to a party plan to vote for the candidates of that party this coming November. In the NDN poll, about 95% of both Democratic and Republican identifiers who have made a choice say they expect to vote this fall for the congressional candidate of the party with which they identify. Meanwhile, among the presumably decisive independents, almost two-thirds (61%) are as yet undecided in the race for Congress. The remainder is split almost evenly between the two parties, with 21% preferring the Republicans and 18% the Democrats.

The solid Democratic advantage in party ID, coupled with the strong support given by Democratic identifiers to the party's candidates, and the closely divided independent vote, translates into a clear lead for the Democrats over the Republicans among all Americans on the generic congressional ballot in the NDN survey (35% for the Democrats vs. 29% for the GOP with 34% undecided and 8% favoring another party or candidate). 

There is, however, a large fly in the Democratic ointment. At least at this point, Democratic identifiers are significantly less likely to be registered to vote than are Republicans (90% vs. 84%). Democrats are also substantially less likely than Republicans to say they are certain to vote in November (76% vs. 67%). These concerns are particularly acute among Latinos and Millennials, both of which are key components of the Democratic coalition. As a result of these disparities, the Democratic lead over the GOP on the generic ballot drops to three points among registered voters (35% vs. 32%), and to a statistical tie of just two points among those who say they are certain to vote this fall (37% vs. 35%).

What must the Democratic Party do to overcome these barriers? One thing is to organize. The decision of the Democratic National Committee to spend $50 million in 2010 to increase the registration and turnout of "first time voters" (meaning, primarily, Millennials, African-Americans, Latinos, and single women) is a key step in constructing and strengthening the 21st century Democratic coalition for this year and the decades ahead.

But Democrats also need to resist advice to turn to the right as some pundits suggest. Conservative columnist, George Will, is certainly correct in noting that the Democratic disadvantage this year in voter enthusiasm and commitment could hurt the party in November.  But his assertion that the lack of enthusiasm among Democratic voters stems from their party's being "at odds with an increasingly center-right country," is challenged by recent poll results.

The NDN survey portrays a country that is anything but center-right. A solid majority of Americans prefer a government that actively tries to solve the problems facing society and the economy (54%), rather than a government that stays out of society and the economy to the greatest extent possible (31%). Three-quarters of Democrats (76%), and just over half of independents (52%), favor an activist government, while 60% of Republicans want a laissez faire approach.

Similarly, a clear plurality of the electorate (49%) wants government to ensure that all Americans have at least a basic standard of living and level of income, even if it increases government spending. Only 34% supported the alternative approach of letting each person get along economically on their own, even if that means some people have a lot more than others. A solid majority of Democrats (69%), and half of independents, opt for governmental policies aimed at increasing economic equality, something that is opposed by two-thirds (65%) of Republicans.

Nothing would be more confusing and dispiriting for Democratic voters than for the Democratic Party to turn away from the political and economic approach they strongly favor, and which has been the hallmark of the party's success and identity since the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Generating enthusiasm for Democratic candidates in the 2010 midterm election requires highlighting, not downplaying or running away from, the striking legislative accomplishments of the Democratic congressional majority during the first two years of the Obama administration.

Democrats would also be well advised not to base their campaign on pursuing independent voters, angry or otherwise. For one thing, the much-vaunted independents are far less likely to be registered (72%) and certain to vote (52%) than are either Republican or Democratic identifiers. While aiming at unaffiliated and uninvolved voters may be a good idea for a party that has fewer, or even the same number, of identifiers as its opponent, it is not the best strategy for a party that holds a clear party identification lead within the electorate. Doing everything that it can to mobilize its own supporters makes far more sense, and is likely to be far more effective. In the end, what happens to the Democratic Party in 2010 and beyond is in its own hands, and will be determined primarily by the votes of those who identify with it, rather than being in the hands of the media or the other side of the political aisle.