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Minds Don’t Change That Much, But Voters Do

If you don't like the results of an election, just wait until the next one.

People attend the victory celebration for Republican Florida Governor-elect Rick Scott in November 3, 2010 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Scott beat his opponent Democratic Alex Sink.
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Above: People attend the victory celebration for Republican Florida Governor-elect Rick Scott in November 3, 2010 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Scott beat his opponent Democratic Alex Sink.

Republicans, who had been left despondent by their losses in 2006 and 2008, savored a triumph on Tuesday. And there's nothing resembling a guarantee that the pendulum will swing back in time to favor Democrats in 2012.

But it’s also clear that we're in an era when a dissatisfied electorate refuses to allow either party to maintain a firm grasp on power for long. "This was an extraordinary good year for us," says Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican who lost his Senate seat in 2008 in one of the tightest elections of recent years and after a lengthy recount. "But I'm not ready to claim it's going to be a 40-year or even a four-year Republican majority."

Changing Minds, Or Changing Voters?

Individual voters may not change their partisan voting habits very often. But different groups of voters are likely to turn up at the polls on any given Election Day. And the mood of the people who show up to vote has proven very different from one election to the next.

"What we had this year was a higher turnout of Republican voters, and a higher turnout of the angry independents," says Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster. "In 2006, there was more intensity among Democrats, and the independents were pointing their anger toward Republicans."

Exit polls indicated that 56 percent of independents supported Republican House candidates on Tuesday, compared with 38 percent who voted Democratic. That's nearly a mirror image of independent voting in the midterm elections of 2006, when 57 percent favored Democrats, and 39 percent voted Republican.

Independents have been growing more conservative in their outlook since President Obama took office nearly two years ago, says Scott Keeter, a pollster with the Pew Research Center. But equally important, he says, is the fact that what had been predicted all year — that staunch Republicans would be more enthusiastic about voting than ardent Democrats — turned out to be true.

"This was more about how people were motivated to vote, rather than how they've changed their minds since the last election," Keeter says.

Still Waiting For Realignment

The fact that Republicans could outvote Democrats in 2010 may have seemed unlikely just two years ago. Not only had Democrats gained large majorities in Congress, but Obama appeared to redraw the electoral map, carrying states long denied to his party in presidential elections — such as Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina.

Obama also appeared to build onto the existing Democratic coalition, increasing turnout among African-Americans and increasing the party's support among Latinos and voters under 30. "This might have been a realigning presidency, because of all the places he won and the demography of the Democratic Party, which speaks more to the future of the country," says Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University. But, Gans says, "Obama blew it."

Building a governing majority that could last, Gans says, would have required dramatically reducing the unemployment rate, which has remained stubbornly high.

Goeas, the Republican pollster, says that claims about Obama's shifting voting patterns in 2008 were oversold anyway. "One of the myths of the 2008 campaign is that it was a transitional electorate, with a lot of new people coming into the process," he says. But with the exception of a few states such as Indiana and North Carolina, Goeas says, turnout was only fractionally higher than it had been in presidential voting four years earlier.

Remaining Divided

Obama clearly benefited two years ago from anxiety about the economy and disdain among many voters for the incumbent, George W. Bush. On Tuesday, the president's party paid the price for continued economic anxiety. Republicans won big by presenting themselves as the agents of change. But exit polls indicated that even people who voted for the GOP were not especially enamored of the party.

Now, voters will remain wary of both parties as they come to share power — as well as blame, if the economy continues to sputter.

"Democrats had a four-year run, and now that run has turned around," says Coleman, the former senator, who is now head of American Action Network, an independent group that spent heavily in support of GOP candidates this year. "But with 2 percent economic growth, that has to be a danger signal to anybody in power right now."

More Dissatisfied Customers

With the two parties remaining roughly at parity in terms of the size of their core bases of support, circumstances of the moment, such as the economy this year or the Iraq war in 2006, determine whether Democrats or Republicans come out on top among those voters whose support remains up for grabs.

"There's a real growth in the number of voters who are not locked in and loyal to a party," says Mickey Edwards, a former GOP congressman from Oklahoma, "and they're just assessing the situation as it comes."

What politicians should not do is mistake an electoral win — even a big one — for a mandate, Edwards suggests. Elections are referendums about the state of the economy and the performance of the party in power, not promises made about future support.

"How well each party performs while it's in power determines its fate," says Mark Mellman, a Democratic consultant. "I've been through the end of the Democratic Party twice, the end of the GOP three times, and yet here we still are."

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