Tribalism drove 2010 results

The polls I was looking at during this cycle showed an unprecedented level of partisan defection. Granted, most partisans still vote most of the time for their party’s nominee. But where once upon a time we could count upon 95 percent of party registrants to vote for their standard-bearer, those days are gone most everywhere. And even those voters who do vote for their partisan choice are often no longer voting for traditional partisan considerations. Instead of voting to affirm a party platform or philosophy, they are voting with their affinity group (think of ethnic or union groups) or for the assumed ideology of the candidate.

The most common takeaway from this election is that the voters rejected the Democrats and embraced the Republicans. But is that what really happened? The problem with this conventional wisdom is that it implies voters preferred Republican solutions over the failed policies of the Democrats. But polling doesn’t seem to bear this out. As voters went to the polls, ratings of the “Republicans in Congress” were almost as low as those assigned to Democrats. The narrow advantage enjoyed by Republicans hardly would account for the magnitude of the GOP victory.

I would also posit that about four to six weeks before the election, the Democrat debacle looked to be even bigger, but things tightened somewhat once voters accepted that the Democrats were goners and began to ponder the Republican alternatives. It was a pox on both our houses. So, in the end, voters decided to punish the Democrats — after all, they were in charge — and then deal with the Republicans later. That’s my take.

Years ago, my political science courses posited that one classification of members of Congress was that of “party man.” Oh, the horror if any of those are still hiding out in the dark halls of Congress. The best positioning today is that of the independent who shuns “party bosses” and other ogres of politics-as-usual. The gerrymander and partisan redistricting process allow a few troglodytes to be unabashed partisans, but their numbers are winnowing.

Instead of party, it strikes me that candidates and their voters are becoming captives of affinity groups. They may reject party labels but don’t eschew being the Hispanic candidate, a suburban candidate, union-backed, rural, business-endorsed, regional favorite, gunner, greenie, God-fearer, etc., depending on where and how you live. It’s as if candidates know we are all looking for someone “like us,” something parties and partisans can’t be in a universal sense, that causes us to lunge instead for candidates who represent our “tribe.”

The decline of the traditional party campaign organizations and the rise of special interest group independent-expenditure campaigns accelerates this trend. The unions and Chambers of Commerce may well, and usually do, outspend traditional party committees these days. Who doesn’t outspend the parties? The brightest operative minds follow the money, too, and end up in the IE camps. They figure out that voters are more interested in tribal appeals than partisan ones and the parties become less and less relevant, for operatives, voters, the press, for most everyone.

Partisanship will get a small boost in 2012. Presidential politics reignites smoldering old loyalties. But the next midterm, 2014, may be the last hurrah for parties as we have known them. The party torch will never burn brightly again.

David Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.