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The more things change: Tuesday's voters will be far more polarized than those of a generation ago

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published November 3, 2014

 The more things change: Tuesday's voters will be far more polarized than those of a generation ago

Tuesday’s elections are important — to the Congress, to the president, to the 2016 aspirants for the White House, to the country. They’ll create the political climate for the last two years of the Obama administration, set the table for the next presidential election and determine whether the 114th Congress is any more productive, or any less contentious, than the 113th.

Midterm congressional elections often are over-interpreted, as they were in 1938: The Democrats lost 72 House seats but Franklin Roosevelt had little trouble holding onto the White House in 1940 and 1944.

On occasion they are lagging indicators of great change: The Republicans seized power on Capitol Hill after the 1994 election, completing the Republican Revolution set in motion by Ronald Reagan.

And sometimes they can transform the nature of our politics: The “Watergate babies” elected in 1974 held prominent positions, and shaped influential legislation, on Capitol Hill for a generation.

We don’t yet know whether the Republicans this week will seize back the Senate, nor whether there will be further erosion in the Democrats’ position in the House. But we do know that great forces are in motion across the political landscape. These have been evident over the past two decades, and the question the country will help answer Tuesday is whether they are a result of surface changes in the political weather or deeper changes in the political climate.

A word of caution first: The American electorate that goes to the polls Tuesday is not the same one that went to the polls to re-elect Barack Obama two years ago — nor the one that will choose his successor two years hence.

That is axiomatic, of course; a country created by immigrants and shaped by economic conditions never is the same as it was the two years earlier. But there is more to it than that. Voters in presidential elections, when so much seems to be at stake, are substantially different from voters in midterm elections — even though 100 percent of the House, a third of the Senate and a majority of governors’ offices are up for grabs.

Look at the demographics of the 2012 election, when Mr. Obama captured his second term. There was a discernible decline in votes for Democrats in House elections as you move from younger voters (aged 18-29, who gave Democratic candidates a startling 60 percent of the vote) to middle-aged voters (age 45-64, who checked the Democratic box 47 percent of the time), to older voters (over 64, who chose Democrats only 44 percent of the time). Many of these younger (ardent Democratic) voters won’t show up at the polls Tuesday. But many of the older (more GOP-oriented) voters will.

And this time around, it is also safe to say that the electorate will be substantially whiter than it was two years ago — and that, too, is a big disadvantage for the Democrats. In 2010, the last midterm congressional election, non-white voters sided with the Democrats 75 percent of the time — but there were far fewer of them at the polls than there were in the two presidential elections on either side of those contests.

So the Republicans go into Tuesday’s elections with strong advantages, and that is before adding in Mr. Obama’s disapproval ratings — almost 55 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics average of the leading dependable polls. (The Associated Press poll puts Obama disapproval at an even more dramatic 59 percent.)

These are the micro changes in American politics, and they point to the growing likelihood of a Republican Senate in 2015, and thus a split between a Democratic White House and Republican control of both chambers on Capitol Hill.

But those micro changes, if confirmed Tuesday, could reinforce macro changes in American politics that might portend an even more divisive character for our civic life. These divisions, mind you, are not necessarily discomfiting to those who believe that ideological battle is preferable to bipartisan cooperation — and that is a point of view with deep roots in American politics.

That’s probably a topic for another day, though, not for the tumult of the weekend before critical elections. Right now political professionals are worrying about turnout, weekend endorsements and last-minute ad offensives.

But those macro trends are vital, for in the broad sweep of things American politics have undergone profound changes in the last generation.

A Pew Research study makes it clear that Americans are far more ideologically charged — far more ideologically consistent — today than they were two decades ago, and that these increasingly fixed ideological positions align with far more ideologically fixed political parties. One result is that substantially greater numbers of Americans view the opposing party as a threat to the nation’s well-being.

Now, this should not prompt a nostalgic yearning for some kind of tranquil politics of the past. Finley Peter Dunne, born two years after the Civil War, taught us that in his unforgettable maxim, “politics ain’t beanbag,” which was his way of saying that American politics is a contact sport. Still true, especially with the Pew study finding that 92 percent of Republicans are more conservative than the median Democrat, while 94 percent of Democrats are more liberal than the median Republican.

Today we consider that normal. But it wasn’t always so — for example, in 1966, when liberal Republicans such as Charles Percy (Illinois), Edward Brooke (Massachusetts) and Mark Hatfield (Oregon) won Senate elections. At the time, the leading contenders for the next Republican presidential nomination were a liberal (Nelson Rockefeller of New York), a moderate (George Romney of Michigan) and a Cold Warrior with some liberal impulses (Richard Nixon of California).

And in those 1966 elections, the Democrats sent back to the Senate conservatives like Allen Ellender of Louisiana and John McClellan of Arkansas, both opponents of the Voting Rights Act a year earlier.

Today those men would be Republicans — and, in the imperfect poetry of politics, the character of the Senate next January may well be determined by whether Republicans topple incumbent Democrats in their two states.

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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