The myth of Republican disunity
Democrats lean left even more than Republicans lean right, but they get less for it. While America’s two parties are equally committed to their respective ends of the political spectrum, there is a significant difference in the size of those ideological constituencies. This difference helps explain why the Democratic Party, the larger in registration, is often the minority party today.
Conventional wisdom is that the Republicans Party is fractured and dominated by conservatives. Two implications — often explicit — follow from this: Republicans’ domination by the right is costing them politically and the reason for their disunity, while Democrats are less controlled by the left and comparatively more unified.
There are two problems with this “conventional wisdom.” First, Republicans are currently Washington’s majority — controlling the White House and Congress — and an even greater one across the nation’s state governments. So, claimed domination by the right has hardly hurt Republicans here.
Second, this century’s presidential elections — five from 2000 through 2016 — also contradict conventional wisdom. In these five elections, Democrats averaged 37.8 percent of the electorate, and Republicans 33.8 percent. While seemingly small, 4 percent is electorally significant.
Four of the last five elections have had smaller popular vote margins. Further, self-identification overwhelmingly predicts voting: Democrats voted Democratic on average 89 percent and Republicans voted Republican 91 percent.
Notably, Democrats support the Democratic Party less than Republicans do the Republican Party. Additionally, Democrats’ greater party desertion is not just to vote for third party candidates. They also vote for Republicans in greater percentages (8.4 percent) than Republicans vote for Democrats (7.4 percent). Democrats have done both in four of the last five elections. Both contradict the popular perception of greater Republican disunity — at least among member ranks.
The five elections are equally revealing regarding ideological support. Conservatives and liberals were only slightly less loyal to parties than parties’ selfprofessed members. Conservatives voted for Republicans on average 81.2 percent of the time, while liberals voted for Democrats on average 84.6 percent of the time.
The evidence contradicts the perception Republicans are the more ideologicallyattached party. Judged by liberal and conservative attachments, the conclusion is not true. Taking conservative and liberal voting habits as indicative of how each group feels served by the respective parties, liberals feel Democrats do so markedly better (in each of the last four elections) than conservatives feel Republicans do.
Overturning these popular assumptions about American politics raises a bigger question. Why does the Democratic Party, with a larger percentage of the electorate and greater loyalty from their ideological base, currently trail Republicans electorally in Washington and even more so in the states?
A simplistic answer would be that it is because Democrats desert their party in greater percentages. But that still only begs the question — why — especially with the Democratic Party benefitting from greater loyalty in their ideological base. Again, the numbers provide the answer. Although the Democratic Party enjoys a much greater degree of ideological loyalty from liberals, that base is a dramatically smaller percentage of the electorate than Republicans’ conservative one. Over the last five elections, conservatives have averaged 33.8 percent of the electorate, just over a third; liberals have averaged just 22.8 percent, well under a quarter.
In American politics, where small single digits matter greatly, the 10.6 percent average difference between liberals and conservatives matters enormously. Even liberals’ greater attachment to the Democratic Party cannot offset such a large quantitative difference.
And there may be more than a simple quantitative difference at play too. Turning back to prevailing conventional wisdom, stripped of identifiers, it premises that ideology was responsible for political disunity. Of course, by that it means Republican Party attachment to conservatives fractures it.
Could not the same premise instead be politically reversed?
The points are there to make a case that the Democratic Party’s stronger attachment to liberals (as evidenced by liberals’ stronger attachment to it) has created a quantitative and qualitative weakness. Quantitatively, the Democratic Party’s ideological ally is simply far less numerous than Republicans’ — thus undercutting their member numbers advantage. Qualitatively, that attachment may also explain Democrats’ higher average party desertion — particularly to the Republican Party — than Republicans.’
It makes sense a party’s members would strongly support it. It equally makes sense each end of the political spectrum would support the party they perceive most closely represents their priorities — all voters do that. The quandary existing in prevailing political analysis comes from the nonsensical conclusions of conventional wisdom: That the currently majority party (Republican), despite its consistent minority of voters, is harmed and fractured because of excessive attachment to one end of the ideological spectrum (conservative). The reversal of conventional wisdom actually better explains current conditions.
Over the last five elections, conservatives have averaged 33.8 percent of the electorate, just over a third; liberals have averaged just 22.8 percent, well under a quarter.
J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget and as a congressional staff member.