Was There a Realignment?

Pollsters debate whether the 2008 election is a fundamental realignment of American politics, with liberals and Democrats now in the driver’s seat. But some ask, how can it be a realignment when the largest public opinion poll, the election-day exit poll, found liberals still a small minority of voters?

Twenty-two percent of those polled identified themselves as “liberal,” 34 percent as “conservative,” 44 percent as “moderate.”

One reason, not discussed in this article, is that liberal-moderate-conservative is a crude and one-dimensional view of the political spectrum. At the very least we should recognize that holding fiscally conservative views doesn’t necessarily make you a social conservative, and being a social conservative doesn’t make you a free-marketer. So when you add just one more dimension to create a matrix, you can get two new categories, whom we might call “populist” (socially conservative and pro-government activism, like Lou Dobbs and Mike Huckabee) and “libertarian” (fiscally conservative and culturally liberal).

In 2006, after another election that involved a sharp shift to the Democrats, Cato asked Zogby to poll voters on their political views. We asked half the respondents, “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal?” We were quite surprised that fully 59 percent said yes. And when we asked the other half of the sample, “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian?” we knew the number would go down. But it only went down to 44 percent. So 44 percent of American voters are willing to label themselves as “libertarian” if it’s defined as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.”

Which is one reason that Democrats were able to roll up a big victory with an electorate that described itself as 78 percent conservative or moderate. Pollsters should ask more creative questions to get more revealing information about just where the electorate is and just what electoral changes mean.