By Alexander Bolton - 10/14/10 10:00 AM EDT
This result comes from The Hill 2010 Midterm Election Poll, which found that 44 percent of likely voters say the Democratic Party is more dominated by its extreme elements, whereas 37 percent say it’s the Republican Party that is more dominated by extremists.
The revelations in a survey of 10 toss-up congressional districts across the country point to problems for Democrats, who are trying to motivate a disillusioned base and appeal to independents moving to the GOP ahead of the Nov. 2 election.
More than one in every five Democrats (22 percent) in The Hill’s survey said their party was more dominated than the GOP by extreme views. The equivalent figure among Republicans is 11 percent.
Results for independent voters reflected the larger sample. Forty-three percent of likely independent voters said the Democratic Party is more dominated by its extreme elements, compared to 37 percent who thought the GOP had fallen under the sway of extreme views.
The figures by party do come with one caveat: Because the voter sampling size is smaller, the margin of error by party is 4.5 percent.
The data surprised Democratic strategists and political experts in a campaign season when much media attention has focused on the battle between the GOP establishment and Tea Party-backed candidates such as Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware.
They said it suggests problems for a Democratic Party seen as too liberal.
“That’s real trouble for Democrats,” said Jim Kessler, co-founder of the Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.
“All the press coverage has been about how these Tea Party candidates are fringe ideologues, and there have been high-profile examples of them proving the point,” he added. “Yet, still at this moment, you have independents saying, ‘I think the Democrats are a little more extreme than the Republicans.' "
O’Donnell’s past denunciation of masturbation and the admission that she “dabbled into witchcraft” have dominated media coverage of her campaign.
At a July fundraiser for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), President Obama called out Angle as extreme for wanting to phase out and privatize Social Security and Medicare and eliminate federal investment in education.
But polling data from congressional districts in Arkansas, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Washington state, West Virginia and Wisconsin show that Democratic leaders are having trouble convincing voters that the GOP is more extreme.
Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota and longtime observer of the national political scene, said he was surprised by the data.
“I thought the publicity around the Tea Party phenomenon would have given a different result,” he said.
“It is a reflection that the faces of leadership of the Democrats in government are seen as very liberal faces: Reid, [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi [Calif.] and Obama,” he said. “The leading faces of the Republican Party aren’t that well-known.”
Democratic Party strategists have tried to change that dynamic, working to raise the profile of House Republican Leader John Boehner (Ohio), who would be in line to replace Pelosi as Speaker in the event of a GOP victory in the House.
But that effort has shown limited success.
Liberal Democrats say that Fox News, Glenn Beck and other conservative broadcasters who frequently criticize Obama, Reid and Pelosi as extremists have an enormous influence on public opinion.
“Democrats haven't nominated anyone like Sharron Angle or Rand Paul or Christine O'Donnell or Rob Johnson or Joe Miller for Senate seats, much less the myriad of wackos in House races across the country,” said Markos Moulitsas, founder and publisher of Daily Kos, one of the nation’s largest liberal blogs. “We don't have media figures like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh calling the shots for our party.
“But they have built their alternate world courtesy of Fox News, thus making them impervious to reality. Is that a problem? Sure. Even more so when Democrats think they can reason with this crowd,” said Moulitsas, a contributing columnist for The Hill.
The survey also showed that a majority of Democratic voters want their representatives in Congress to work harder to achieve compromise with Republicans.
Fifty-eight percent of Democrats said they would urge the lawmaker they supported to “look for compromises across the aisle”; only 35 percent would rather urge their representatives to “stay firm on their principles.”
Kessler, of Third Way, said this is a sign that many Democrats think their party has shifted too far to the left in recent years.
“Even Democrats feel the Democratic Party needs to reach to the center,” he said. “There’s a fear that maybe Democrats overreached in the first two years. They should work to get something done but not fall on their own sword.”
But liberal opinion leaders reject this argument.
Charles Chamberlain, political director of Democracy for America, a grassroots advocacy group founded by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, urged Democratic leaders not to abandon liberal principles to work with Republicans.
“Ask Americans if they want Democrats to compromise on any specific issue like healthcare reform, Social Security or tax cuts for the wealthy and the real-world answer becomes no,” said Chamberlain. “This is why recent polling shows that by a 2-to-1 margin Americans think the healthcare bill didn't go far enough. This is why over 70 percent of Americans want Congress to keep their hands off Social Security and over 65 percent want the tax cuts for the wealthy to expire. The facts show, when you poll Americans on the issues, they want progress, not compromise.”
The back-and-forth among Democrats is the precursor to an intra-party debate that will likely grow sharper in the 112th Congress.
Republicans, by and large, are not looking for their representatives in Congress to compromise.
Sixty-two percent of Republican voters said they would urge their lawmakers to stand firm on their principles, while only 32 percent wanted them to look across the aisle for compromise.
Independent voters reflected Democrats in wanting to see more compromise in Washington. Thirty-five percent of independents said they would urge members of Congress to hold fast to their principles and 56 percent wanted to see more efforts to achieve bipartisan compromise.
Bruce Cain, executive director of the University of California Washington Center, said the data signal that compromise may be elusive in the 112th Congress.
“It says that the Republicans have a lot of support within their own party ranks for tactics they’ve pursued so far,” he said.
Cain said Congress is very unlikely to pass a second stimulus bill or a comprehensive energy bill that limits carbon emissions, given the views of Republican voters.
He said, however, that GOP gains in the Senate and House would bring more centrist Republicans to Washington, and they could push their leaders to strike deals. He said freshman Republican lawmakers would want to show some accomplishments to voters back home.
“Doing nothing for two years and waiting for the next election is not a very successful strategy,” he said.
Democratic and Republican experts noted that former President Clinton and the GOP-controlled Congress crafted deals despite the partisan atmosphere that pervaded Washington in the 1990s. Clinton and Republican leaders agreed to reform the nation’s welfare system, created the state children’s health insurance program and reduced taxes on capital gains.