This report unravels a defining mystery of the modern political era. Since 1972, Democrats have held a lead in the number of Americans who identify with the party, but that hasn’t translated into sustained Congressional and White House dominance. In this report, we explain this quandary and its serious political implications, based on four findings:
1. Since 1972, more voters have consistently identified as Democrats or Democratic leaners than Republicans.2. But the ideological divide between Democratic voters and activists has been far larger than the GOP’s.3. This ideological gulf coincides with less party loyalty from Democratic coalition voters.4. Democratic leaning Independents are a growing part of the coalition and cannot be counted on to be reliable Democratic voters.
These findings have significant electoral consequences for Democrats. Odds favor a re-emergent Democratic majority, but only if liberal party activists will cede control of the agenda and allow the party to move in the direction of its moderate, nonactivist voters.Eberly offers more detail on the second point:
In the 10 presidential election cycles dating back to 1972, Democratic activists (defined as those who attended a meeting or rally and donated to a campaign) rated themselves at an average of 3.06 on the 7-point ideological scale. Democratic non-activists came in at 3.77—indicating a 0.71 gulf between the active and non-active wings of the Party (with 1 representing extremely liberal, 7 extremely conservative, and a score of 4 representing moderate).
Republicans have a much smaller and less sustained gulf. Between 1972 and 2008, Republican activists rated themselves at 5.22 on the 7-point ideological scale, with non-activists very close at 4.89 (a .33 difference). In fact, the ideological gulf between Democratic activists and Democratic non-activists is more than twice that of their Republican counterparts dating back to 1972. Thus, Democratic activists are blue; the Democratic base is purple, and Republicans of all stripes are red.