What If a Party Re-branded Itself, and Americans Never Noticed?

Greg Sargent:

Which raises a question that I wish the political science eggheads would answer: Are the structural aspects of our politics such that no matter how aggressively Republicans pursue policies that risk alienating core voter groups they need to improve their appeal among, it won’t materially impact the party’s fortunes? Is there a point at which any of this matters?

Here are three points in response.

First, structural conditions in the country, especially the state of the economy, may put a Republican in the White House and maintain or expand Republican seat share in Congress—even if the Republicans don’t moderate their policies.  You don’t have to be, like me, a skeptic of the “emerging Democratic majority” thesis to believe this.  Ruy Texeira is obviously a proponent of that thesis and we agree on this point.   Texeira writes:

Democrats will certainly not win every election for decades, no matter how big their demographic advantages.  Decisions made by parties and the consequences of those decisions (e.g., for economic growth and distribution) certainly will be central to the ability of any party to win elections in a sustained fashion.

Second, structural conditions don’t explain everything, of course.  A simple economic measure—like changes in gross domestic product over the first half of the election year—explains about 40% of the variation in post-WWII presidential election outcomes.  (Nate Silver has more on this.) Moreover, there is evidence that voters punish incumbents for policies they disagree with.  House members who are out-of-step with their constituents are more likely to lose (see here or here).  House incumbents can be punished for controversial roll call votes—as were Democrats for their support of Obamacare, according to research by me and others.  For members of Congress, as Ryan Enos noted in response to Sargent, all of these effects will be more important for in swing districts.  Presidential candidates who are ideologically further from the center also appear to pay a penalty (see Table 2 of John Zaller’s article and also Silver).  So I would never suggest that ideology or policy is irrelevant to elections.

Third, despite this evidence, I still think people overestimate the role that ideology plays in elections.  That was one of the points of my earlier Wonkblog post on the GOP’s “re-boot.”  I think this point got elided because that post was largely read in the context of the “emerging Democratic majority” thesis—see Eric Schickler, Jon Chait, and Nate Cohn—which is somewhat separate.  In that post, I showed that Obama won even though Romney was perceived as more moderate and even though public opinion about the size of government had taken a conservative turn under Obama.

Let me bring more data to bear on this.  For the past 40 years, the American National Election Study has asked respondents to place the Democratic and Republican parties on a seven-point scale that ranges from “extremely liberal” to “extremely conservative.”  Here is the trend, including the 2012 study that was just released and excluding the small fraction of respondents who could not place each party:

partyplacement(Click the graph for a larger version.)

Two features of this graph deserve emphasis, I think.  One is how poorly the trends conform to prevailing narratives about how the parties have changed.  In particular, there is precious little evidence that Americans perceived the Democratic Party’s “re-boot” in the late 1980s and 1990s—when many observers believe that the party moved to the center under the influence of the Democratic Leadership Council and Bill Clinton. This is one reason why I’m skeptical that ideological “re-branding” is all that consequential.

That skepticism is even more justified by the second, and overriding, feature of the graph: just how little change in perceptions there has been over time.  The GOP is perceived to be only slightly more conservative than it was forty years ago.  As of 2008, the Democratic Party was perceived to be as liberal as it was when it nominated George McGovern.  As of 2012, it was perceived to be only a bit more liberal than in 1972.  We can have an argument about whether the Democratic Party has shifted left or right.  The point is that the public doesn’t see much of any shift.

And as Larry Bartels has shown, the same is true of the public’s perceptions of the presidential candidates, with the possible exception of McGovern himself:


To return to Sargent’s post: none of this suggests that it is in the long-term interests of the Republican Party to hew to conservative orthodoxy on every single issue—which is what Sargent seems to believe they are doing, at least in the House.  I think supporting immigration reform is a necessary, though far from sufficient, condition to build lasting support among Latinos that isn’t just a temporary consequence of structural conditions in the election year.  And if public support for same-sex marriage continues to increase, it makes sense for Republicans to support that too, just to be on the right side of majority opinion.

But when I hear people telling the GOP to “re-brand” or “re-boot,” I hear them advocating something more than just tacking to the center on a few issues.  Advocates seem to want a more thorough renovation of the party’s platform.  Could that help the party regain the White House?  Possibly.  Is it necessary for them to do so in order to win?  I doubt it.  After all, the parties have changed a lot in the past 40 years, but voters don’t really seem to have noticed.

[UPDATE: A reader emails me with a point of clarification—which I think amplifies my point.  From 1972-82, respondents who could not place themselves on this same seven-point scale were not asked where they would place the parties or presidential candidates on this scale.  That is about 30% of the sample.  From 1984-96, the same was true, although this applied only to respondents who could not place themselves even after a subsequent follow-up question about their ideological placement (about 10% of the sample).  So there are respondents excluded from these graphs, over and above the ones I mention in the post—those who said they didn’t know where to place a party.

Why does this amplify my point?  Respondents who could place themselves on this ideological scale tend to be a more politically attentive group.  Thus, the graphs above isolate precisely those respondents who, because of their close attention to politics, should be able to perceive a “re-boot” if one happens.  And even they don’t perceive much movement in the parties.]

28 Responses to What If a Party Re-branded Itself, and Americans Never Noticed?

  1. LFC June 14, 2013 at 8:17 am #

    Are you suggesting that because voters don’t perceive ideological movement, a party has not in fact moved? Or are you suggesting that voters don’t perceive ideological movement even when movement has occurred?

    I would think the latter is closer to what happens. E.g., the Dems moved right under Clinton and the DLC; if voters didn’t perceive that shift, it’s because even so-called attentive voters aren’t very attentive.

    • John Sides June 14, 2013 at 10:12 am #

      Yes, I mean the latter.

  2. AJJ June 14, 2013 at 9:36 am #

    What about the plummeting number of Republicans and increasing share of Independents? Does it matter if the Democratic coalition stays relatively static as percentage of the electorate while the Republican share bottoms out and the Independent share increases? That poll placing the relative ideology of respondents is meaningless if moderate-right leaning voters are no longer identifying with the Republican party, choosing instead to identify themselves as Independents and choosing to no longer vote Republican on consistent basis – either by sitting out the election, voting third party, or voting for a sufficiently moderate Democrat…as the current bent of Republican primaries is to produce the most conservative candidate possible. I would say we are entering an era in which the historic post-WWII data is at misleading in predicting future elections.

    • John Sides June 14, 2013 at 10:19 am #

      The trend you describe has arisen because some Republicans now describe themselves as independents who lean Republican. And these independents who lean Republican are *not* moderates, but are in fact more conservative than many self-identified Republicans.

  3. Scott Monje June 14, 2013 at 9:50 am #

    Isn’t it generally a mistake to confuse “attentive” voters with “perceptive” voters? The most attentive, most engaged voters also seem to be the ones most firmly tied to their previous understandings of both their own party and the other side. Your average “high-information” voter is not necessarily the one most capable of analyzing that information objectively.

    • John Sides June 14, 2013 at 10:21 am #

      Scott: That may be true. But in lots of other ways, attentive voters do pick up on changes in the information environment and adjust their positions according.

  4. Anon June 14, 2013 at 10:16 am #

    I think the Federalists would disagree with the claim that policy positions don’t affect the electoral fortunes of the party…

  5. Jake Wobig June 14, 2013 at 10:25 am #

    How do those trends look for self-identified Democrats, Republicans, and Independents? In responding to a question about party ideology, I would think partisans would interpret that question essentially as a question about their own ideology, and most people don’t want to self-label as extremist. Independents, on the other hand, ought not to be susceptible to this, so I wonder if their perceptions are distinguishable from the total mean?

  6. Jon Cummings June 14, 2013 at 11:56 am #

    I find that graphic fascinating, but not because I believe it reflects a real connection between public perceptions of the parties’ moderation and their ACTUAL moderation. I look at the pronounced movement in views of the Democratic Party during the 1998-2000 period, in particular, and what I see is the beginning of the Fox News effect – the unhinging of conservatives from the realities of policy, toward a highly ideological framing of every issue in ways that are often completely detached from truth.

    These days, Congressional and state-legislature voting records show a strong move toward more ideological extremism on the GOP’s part. Therefore, it seems that the LACK of movement on the Republican side of that graphic over the last 10 years is mostly explainable by the fact that self-described conservatives are disinclined to recognize their own movement toward the far right. I find such surveys untrustworthy in the current environment, because they attempt to slap a patina of universality on a political discourse that now seems to consist of two parallel universes – one based on facts and realistic historical context, the other purely ideological and detached from reality.

    When a third (or so) of the respondents to a survey operate on a level of “reality” that has no basis in fact – and, for example, can convince itself of an impending election victory when all statistical evidence points to the contrary – how can that survey be trusted?

  7. John Henderson June 14, 2013 at 11:56 am #

    One interesting wrinkle, if you stratify on respondents who correctly place the Democratic Party to the left of the Republican Party, you get a bit more divergence — thus, people who are aware of the dimension do *better* in placing the parties as having polarized.

    But, these folks still place their incumbents in the middle AND closer to themselves than they do the challenger. This is true even for districts with incumbents who are most out-of-step (as measured by distance from the line projecting the correlation between presidential choice and incumbent NOMINATE).

    So maybe ideology matters, but incumbents make it hard for voters to know whether they or their challenger is more extreme.

  8. Todd Phillips June 14, 2013 at 1:38 pm #

    I think there is way too much concern with policies and ideology here. Every voter has multiple representatives, each of whom work on many issues, and they have first hand knowledge of almost nothing that the government does. From an individual voter’s perspective the government is almost infinitly complex. The mass media is not accountable to the public nor to politicians and is a poor source of information. Voters see political advertisements which are designed to influence, not inform. Electoral politics is not about policies, it’s about influence. Whoever is best at influencing voters wins. Political parties are marketing (propaganda) organizations and ideologies are one of their tools. And when people vote it is with a 1 or 0–which communicates nothing at all.

    • John Henderson June 14, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

      The perennially unhappy will always have something to lament. The irony here is that at mid-century many observers criticized the lack of concern over policy and ideology in American politics, saying polarized parties would help to give voters better information about the stakes of their electoral choices. The more likely view is that polarized parties have just gotten better at strategically communicating polarized positions to a centrist audience.

      • Nadia Hassan June 14, 2013 at 3:57 pm #

        One other answer to this dilemma is what Herron and Bafumi call leapfrog representation.

      • Todd Phillips June 14, 2013 at 6:35 pm #

        I prefer to think of myself as objective. I think to many people try to justify our system of government and present it in the best possible light. We want to believe democracy as we do it now works! I think an objective look will reveal that there is no way it could work. The only reason it works as well as it does is because of our culture, as explained by Robert Dahl in Who Governs. Expecting millions of disconnected citizens to vote (0 or 1) for people and issues they have no first hand knowledge of is bizarre.

        • John Henderson June 14, 2013 at 7:43 pm #

          And yet, voters always manage to pick the best baseball players for the All-star game. Perhaps, they just get lucky.

          I think you undersell voters a little too much, though I wonder too how it is that things stay put together. My sense is that there are two points: how is it that American democracy in general works so well (or doesn’t), and how is it that it became less representative now than a few decades ago (on policy, not necessarily on other dimensions such as descriptive representation)? I’m not sure these have the same answer, nor do I think voters are to blame for the latter.

          • Erik June 15, 2013 at 3:01 pm #

            “And yet, voters always manage to pick the best baseball players for the All-star game.”

            No, they really don’t. I remember one year when Wade Boggs was selected as the starting third baseman for the AL… when he’d played exactly 3 games at third that year. And while I don’t remember exact names at this moment, there are cases where players are elected who had spent the entire year on the DL. Even in areas where voters are self-selected to be those who care most about the subject at hand, they really are not particularly well focused on facts when casting ballots. Name recognition and memories of reputation count for far more then actual fact in most people’s minds.

        • Kyle C June 16, 2013 at 1:41 pm #

          Show me someone who doesn’t prefer to think of himself as objective.

  9. Todd Phillips June 15, 2013 at 12:18 am #

    That things don’t fall apart is not evidence that voters are somehow in control. Throught history most governments have been autocratic, and some lasted hundreds of years. Our system of government hasn’t unraveled because everyone has an interest in it continuing, and our culture supports a certain amout of freedom and responsibility. This is less the case in many other countries that are “democracies.” I don’t think our government has ever represented the people. How could it when citizens participate so infrequently and when they do so it is by casting a binary vote? Voting implicitly assumes that the winner will communicate with the voters (two-way) after the election, but since each representative has many thousands or millions of consituents that is impossible for more than a tiny few. How is representation possible when two-way communication is impossible? How can citizens understand what is an infinantly complex government and even cast responsible votes?

    Our education, the news media, politicians, and even political scientists present our “democracy” as something that works and makes sense, so people beleive it does. It’s no different from how religions (which are fictions) are perpetuated from one generated to the next.

  10. Tel June 17, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

    I wonder if the graph is assuming the correct direction of causality. If people get it into their heads that whatever Democrats do is “liberal,” and whatever Republicans do is “conservative,” then wouldn’t this kind of graph be expected? People would be calibrating their personal definitions of liberal and conservative by the actions of the parties, rather than judging the parties on an objective standard. If the definitions of liberal and conservative keep changing, then the graph doesn’t tell us very much.

  11. theBitterFig June 17, 2013 at 1:12 pm #

    I’d be interested in seeing how the main chart splits by party identification or respondent score on the 7-point scale. The aggregate chart that perceptions of the Liberalness-of-Democrats shifted more than the perceptions of Conservativeness-of-Republicans. I’d guess that this effect would be exaggerated if we were looking only at conservative or Republican respondents, or diminished if looking at liberal/Democratic respondents.

  12. Naveen June 17, 2013 at 3:35 pm #

    I think the (false) assumption driving your conclusion is that the voters themselves haven’t changed over time.

    • John Sides June 17, 2013 at 7:45 pm #

      Naveen: I don’t know what kind of change you’re referring to. But voters’ placements of themselves on this same seven-point scale have not changed very much, on average:


      • Naveen June 18, 2013 at 2:36 pm #

        No doubt they haven’t. But that’s simply a lack of change in something subjective. Most people tend to think of themselves as part a common sense, moderate majority. The change I refer to is an actual change in attitudes towards actual policy. That’s not subjective.

        Thus, the parties appear to be in the same place to the public, but the reality is that the parties are in the same place relative to the voters, not to ideology. Republicans don’t need to “moderate” if the public and Democrats shift rightwards with them (as they generally have on economic and fiscal issues, though definitely not on social ones).

        • John Sides June 18, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

          Not much rightward shift on these economic issues:


          Those are a select few, to be sure, thought they tap the basic economic issue in American politics: how much the gov’t vs. the market should do. If you can show me an economic issue on which there is a clear secular rightward shift in public opinion (and on which there are not countervailing leftward shifts), I’m happy to see it.

          In general, I don’t think that there has been much secular change in people’s economic attitudes, which is born out by the public mood measure I talked about in my Wonkblog post.

          • Naveen June 18, 2013 at 3:12 pm #

            The problem with these stats is the limited time frames. For example, this one you cite (link just below) is all post-Reagan’s election. Pre-Reagan, especially 50’s and 60’s, I imagine would have shown something much different.


            Now my own select few:

            This one is certainly an economic issue, and shows a rightward drift. (I would love it if there was data pre-civil rights on this).

            And although this lacks a lot of data, the start and end points, plus those dates in the 60s, still add up to a pretty signficant rightward shift. Indeed, I think we can pretty much fill in those missing years based on the ’02 data.

            Of course, a shift to the left may have taken place since ’02, as this data range ends during the afterglow of the dotcom bubble.

            • John Sides June 18, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

              The “aid to blacks” item is economic but of course also racial. I am leery of interpreting any trend as reflecting economic views. The last question you cite does suggest more movement, but none since 1964. Since the graphs in my post span the period 1972-2012, it’s not clear that there was any secular change in this question during that period.

              I would go to my Wonkblog post linked above and look at the measure developed by James Stimson, which extends back until the late 1950s. It is a comprehensive measure in the sense that it incorporates hundreds if not thousands of survey questions. And it also shows no evidence of dramatic secular change.

              • Naveen June 18, 2013 at 3:37 pm #

                Good points. I will take a look at the post. Thanks for the discussion!

  13. Torsten June 17, 2013 at 5:49 pm #

    With the changes in issues and ideological shifts of the parties, the voters have changed their notion of what “liberal” and “conservative” means. A more objective way to measure their attitudes is to compare polling on various issues over the years. Labels are too flexible over time to mean much.