Are Republican Voters to Blame for GOP Intransigence on the Budget?

Nate Silver answers this question in the affirmative:

The Republican Party is dependent, to an extent unprecedented in recent political history, on a single ideological group. That group, of course, is conservatives.

He shows that, among voters who voted for a Republican House candidate, the percentage who were conservative increased from 58% in 2008 to 67% in 2010.  He suggests that this reflects an “enthusiasm gap” in turnout—conservative Republicans were more likely to vote than other Republicans—and that this helps explain why Republican leaders are reluctant to compromise with Obama.

I’m not completely sold on the enthusiasm gap as an explanation for 2010.  Just based on the number of seats they had to defend, the state of the economy, and Obama’s approval rating, they were forecast to lose 56 seats, according to Gary Jacobson.   Moreover, the preferences of so many demographic groups shifted against the Democrats (see slides 9 and 10) that I don’t think it’s just about, or even primarily about, turnout.  See also my earlier post.

But here’s a more important caveat: Republican members of Congress are more conservative than Republican voters.  In fact, representatives from both parties are more ideologically extreme than voters in their parties.  That’s the conclusion of a recently published paper by Joseph Bafumi and Michael Herron (gated; ungated).   In their study of the 109th and 110th Congresses, they use a large national survey that asked voters their positions on key roll call votes taken in Congress.  Thus, Bafumi and Herron can measure the ideologies of voters and members on the same scale.  Once they do so, representatives emerge as far more extreme.

You might think that, even if a Republican representative is more extreme than a Republican voter, he or she might not be more conservative than a conservative Republican voter, who are the focus on Silver’s post.  Bafumi and Herron shed some light on this as well by focusing on a more ideologically extreme group of voters: people who donate money to candidates.  But even most donors are still not as ideologically extreme as the candidates.  For example, only 13% of Republican donors were more conservative than their representatives in the 109th and 110th Congresses.  To be sure, donors are ideologically closer to representatives than are non-donors, but representatives are still more extreme.

Of course, it is true that the 112th Congress is not the 110th Congress.  But I doubt that, in the past 4 years, Republican voters became so much more conservative that they actually matched Republican representatives.  Indeed, all available evidence suggests that the parties in Congress are polarizing much more quickly than the partisans in the public.  It is true that there are fewer liberal or moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats in the public than there once were—you can explore some data here—but the public doesn’t look anything like Congress.   In part, this reflects the lack of ideological fidelity within the parties.  To wit: Silver’s results suggest a shift in the fraction of people who identify as conservative, but even conservatives don’t want to cut most kinds of government spending.

In general, I don’t think we get very far attributing the Republicans’ reluctance to compromise on the budget to what their constituents want.  It likely stems much more from the opinions of interest groups and activists, which have become ideologically polarized (pdf) and which play a crucial role in selecting candidates.  Or it stems simply from the ideologies of members themselves.  People underestimate how much the behavior of politicians is sincere.

5 Responses to Are Republican Voters to Blame for GOP Intransigence on the Budget?

  1. Daniel Ziblatt July 7, 2011 at 6:33 pm #

    great post John.

  2. eric July 7, 2011 at 11:37 pm #

    I’m not one to question most of your conclusions here. However, I’ll say this, Silver does seem to show, and I’ve seen this in my own analysis, that Democratic turnout tends to be lower in non-presidential elections. Certainly, since the Republican base (for want of a better word) are much more conservative than the electorate as a whole, this could have some influence over how members of the House and the President, particularly, behave. Whether or not the Republicans had a mandate after 2010, the election, and the concomitant misinterpretations of that election, I think it’s fair to say, can influence how these elected officials behave.

    In a highly partisan atmosphere (among Democrats, Republicans and Non-partisans) I think it’s worth our time to discuss just who shows up for particular elections. It’s obvious that in presidential elections that large numbers of people show up, so the margins become smaller. But, as is usually the case, it’s the marginal races, in off-year elections, that can have a huge effect on the makeup of legislative bodies in non-presidential election years. I think the makeup of the House, in particular, is reflected by that, as of 2010. This has had a massive influence, it may seem, on how the president and other elected officials may have pursued their various agendas since that election.

    It strikes me that who holds the White House may actually have some influence on who shows up in mid-terms. I’d have to look at those numbers. But it’s not a function, I suspect, of people changing their allegiances, based on policy, often.

  3. Steve Smith July 8, 2011 at 7:55 am #

    Good post. Barbara Sinclair’s “Party Wars” remains the best treatment of the subject. History matters.

  4. Khal Mojo July 8, 2011 at 9:16 am #

    It seems Republican members of Congress have always been more conservative than the voters; now they feel they can be as conservative as they always have been unfettered. Do they fear losing independents when public discourse is in their favor?

  5. William Ockham July 8, 2011 at 4:27 pm #

    I think that there is substantial evidence that Nate Silver is correct and you are wrong. Conservative turnout was up dramatically in 2010. Here’s the basis for that assertion. Gallup conducts extensive polling on the ideology of U.S. adults. You can get annual results for 1992-2010 at Now, compare those numbers with the exit polling data for ideology (

    You can immediately see that conservatives have typically underperformed at the ballot box. Indeed, if you take Professor Michael MacDonald’s turnout data ( and apply the percentages from the Gallup poll to the voting age population and the exit poll percentages to the highest office votes cast column, you can get what should be a reasonable estimate for turnout by ideology.

    Conservative voter turnout in the last 5 presidential elections has been:

    1992 – 46%
    1996 – 42%
    2000 – 38%
    2004 – 47%
    2008 – 52%

    In congressional election years, it’s been:

    1994 – 37%
    1998 – 30%
    2002 – 33%
    2006 – 32%
    2010 – 40%

    Turnout for liberals in 2010 was 36% (exactly the average for the last 5 congressional elections) and turnout for moderates was down to 41%, tied with 1994 for the lowest figure for moderates. This year was the only time in the last 10 elections (and I suspect the only time in the modern era) that conservatives had higher turnout rate that liberals.

    Another way to look at this is to think about the drop off in voters in each ideological category from 2008. Overall, there were approximately 41 million fewer voters in 2010. There were 24 million fewer moderate voters, 11 million fewer liberal voters and 7 million fewer conservative voters. If you compare the 2006 electorate to the 2010 electorate, the comparision is just as stark. In 2010 there were 11 million more conservatives, 6 million fewer moderates, and 2 million more liberals in the electorate.

    Another interesting comparision is to the 1994 electorate. The absolute number of moderates was almost exactly the same as in 2010. But in 2010, there were 10 million more conservatives and 4 million more liberals. Interestingly, moderates had the same turnout rate in both years (41%), but moderates make up less of the electorate nowadays.

    Any way you slice it, 2010 was a phenomenal year for conservative turnout. Moreover, I think this evidence suggests that the median Republican voter and the marginal Republican voter are not the same. That is, the Republicans pick up more voters by campaigning further to the right than the median Republican voter, especially in a mid-term election. A typical House Republican needs to worry a lot more about alienating the Tea Party and the Club for Growth than alienating moderate Republicans.