First, it was GOP victories in the gubernatorial elections of Virginia and New Jersey. Just last month, it was the senatorial election of Scott Brown who claimed a historic Republican victory in the bluest of blue states, Massachusetts. Finally, it was Sarah Palin speaking before the Tea Party convention in Tennessee, claiming the time had come for a revolution and that the GOP would be ready to deliver this revolution to the people. With these electoral victories and Palin’s efforts to consolidate the Tea Party movement behind the GOP, it appears that conservatives have political momentum on their side. It’s been speculated that this newfound popularity is merely a temporary symptom of "political public influenza". Or, even more extreme, that Americans are undergoing a national ideological shift towards the right. While these theories have yet to been proven, one trend is far less ambiguous. Independents' numbers are rapidly growing, and the GOP has morphed its political agenda to appeal to these moderate voters.
2009 was supposed to be the year of the Democrats. The substantial electoral victories in 2008, in which the Democrats took control of both the legislative and executive branches of government, pointed toward a legislative year where they would be able to move their agenda forward without much opposition from the GOP. However, much has changed since the '08 elections. The Democrats' fairy tale has been met with a "Big Bad Witch", and it’s come in the form of an immobile and immutable GOP. Obama and his fellow Democrats have been met with harsh criticism focused on over-spending and the national debt, partisan health care reform, and his “lax” policies on terrorism. All of these issues have been compounded by a jobless economic recovery.
The GOP claims to have taken advantage of the missteps in Democratic policy decisions. Their recent victories in Democratic strongholds seem to suggest their momentum is a product of a larger movement toward traditional Republican ideals of small government and free enterprise. Though these events and public rhetoric certainly seem to demonstrate this shift, the numbers actually suggest the opposite.
According to a recent Gallup Poll summarizing data from 2009, the majority of Americans remain democratic. The number of Americans who claim to be Democrats or lean democratic is 49%, while the figure claiming to lean Republican is 40.7%. Though there have been minor gains in the number of people claiming to side with Republicans, the democratic majority remains dominant. This minor fluctuation in party popularity shouldn’t be looked at as something new. Rather, history has told us that during times of economic and political strife, the public often abandons the party in power for the other party. Reagan, both Bush’s, and Clinton all suffered from stints of public disapproval, marked by minor growth in the popularity of the minority party. Thus, the recent GOP gains should be viewed with moderate speculation, as it is likely that they are not a product of a larger conservative movement, but actually a temporary readjustment common in the democratic cycle.
Contrary to what conservatives might say, the recent victories of the GOP might have more to do with the growth of unhappy Independents rather than a national shift toward more conservative ideologies. As political posturing and partisan finger pointing have come front and center, disenfranchised Americans have begun to separate themselves from these parties with increasing numbers. According to a recent CNN national poll, 42% of the people surveyed identified themselves as Independents. Of the 42% who claimed to be Independent, 32% most often sided with Democrats, while 26% shared more common ground with Republicans.
So, while Democrats appear to have a stronger majority and more solid Independent base, the GOP is still winning elections. What gives?
It is not a coincidence that Scott Brown is relatively liberal when it comes to social issues, nor is it a coincidence that he referred to himself as Independent more often than not throughout his campaign. Republicans have realized the power of the Independent voter and have changed their campaign platforms to get their candidates elected. With Scott Brown’s success, the GOP has followed suit in Illinois. Their strategy of appealing to Independents is actively being employed in the race for President Obama’s vacated Senate seat. In what is a relatively strong Democratic urban region, the GOP has thrown its support behind Republican Mark Kirk. Like Brown, Mark Kirk has been coined a liberal Republican because of his Pro-Choice stance on abortion and a backing from interest groups like Planned Parenthood. These examples represent something significant; the nation has not undergone a spontaneous shift towards the right, but rather the GOP has moved towards the left.
As the growth of the Independent movement continues, Democrats will be confronted with an ultimatum; either alter their political agenda to focus on the Independent voter or suffer more embarrassing defeats at the hands of a transforming Republican party.