Cost of Democratic Party losing moderate and conservative voters

Overlooked in liberals becoming Democrats’ new majority is what happens to conservatives and moderates. Admittedly, conservatives are Democrats’ rapidly decreasing minority; however, in American politics, small matters — a lot. Liberals driving remaining conservatives to become independents or Republicans would have major consequences for Democrats.

A Jan. 8th Gallup poll demonstrated Democrats’ remarkable remake since 1994, when both liberals and conservatives comprised 25 percent of party members. By 2018, liberals had soared to 51 percent, while conservatives had fallen to just 13 percent of Democrats. Understandably, focus has been on liberals’ new first-time majority status. Conservatives have become an afterthought for a party seemingly surging with liberals. This is a huge mistake.

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To understand conservatives’ outsized importance, look back to 2016 exit polling. Democrats comprised 36 percent of voters, Republicans 33 percent and independents 31 percent. Now, imagine where Democrats would be without their seemingly insignificant conservatives.  

Simply removing Democrats’ conservatives from their 2016 voter total would leave them at just 31.3 percent — well below Republicans 2016 share. However, American politics is not static. Democrats’ lost conservatives must go somewhere. If just half of them became Republicans, who already have a large conservative majority, Republicans’ 2016 voter percentage would climb to 35.3 percent. That would approach Democrats’ 2016 level. However, because Republicans’ gain would have been Democrats’ loss, the differential between the two parties would be four percent — well ahead of Democrats’ three percent 2016 advantage.

The effect of subtracting Democrats’ remaining conservatives and adding them to Republican totals would have even more dramatic effect on political outcomes. President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate GOP budget ignores Trump, cuts defense Trump says he'll nominate Stephen Moore to Fed White House: ISIS territory in Syria has been 100 percent eliminated MORE would have won the popular vote in a landslide.  

Subtracting them from Democrats’ congressional seat totals and adding them to Republicans’ would give Republicans a large Senate majority (59 seats) and control of the House (230 seats). Should these numbers seem excessive, they are actually closely reflected in current conditions. Thirty-one House Democrats currently hold seats where Trump won; in 2018, 10 Senate Democrats held seats in states Trump won. 

Should such a simple zero-sum calculation seem too far-fetched, consider a more measured one: Democrats’ conservatives do not turn Republican, but instead independent. The results are more muted, but the effect is still significant.

According to 2016 exit polling, America’s independents voted 42 percent for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocratic Socialists of America endorses Sanders for president How to end the Electoral College and elect our next president by popular vote CNN town halls put network at center of Dem primary MORE and 46 percent for Trump. Assume the same split for Democrats’ migrating conservatives. Democrats would drop into third place politically with 31.3 percent, independents would vault to first with 35.7 percent, and Republicans would remain in second at 33 percent.

Without changing their place, Republicans would have benefited twice. First from Democrats’ absolute loss of voters to Independents, and Republicans’ relative gain vis-à-vis Democrats. Second, is Republicans taking a higher percentage (46 percent) of independents than Democrats did (42 percent).  

This combination would have flipped the popular vote percentage to Trump. Combined with his powerful efficiency in translating a popular vote minority into an electoral vote win, and the magnitude of Democrats’ blow is clear.   

Of course, apologists for liberals’ Democratic ascendancy will object. They will argue that Democrats need not lose conservatives because liberals do not pose a threat to them. The Democratic Party’s own history refutes this. 

Democrats risk losing conservatives because they already have — 12 percent, half their 1994 level, in just 24 years. And as they have done so, liberals have doubled. A clearer correlation would be harder to find. Nor is the attrition confined to just conservatives, Democrats saw moderates drop — almost a third from 48 to 34 percent during the period. 

Further, the momentum could accelerate because liberals are now Democrats’ absolute majority. Before, they could increasingly influence outcomes — now, they can determine them. Where moderate and conservative Democrats could mitigate liberal inclination, now they no longer can.  

Small changes can have big consequences in American politics. In a zero-sum shift of conservative Democrats into the Republican Party, the balance of power in the presidential and congressional races would decisively shift. 

Losing the party conservatives would mean Democrats would have to fight far harder to win back former voters. This would mean spending more and tailoring policies to them; however, the absence of conservatives from their own ranks would mean less willingness and ability to do so. 

Democrats’ rapid increase in their liberal ranks has been notable. Its consequences may be even more so. Obscured is a fundamental weakness in Democrats’ ideological exchange. They are adding rapidly from what is still America’s smallest ideological group and subtracting dramatically from America’s two larger ones. Despite adding liberal energy, their danger lies in subtracting conservative and moderate numbers.   

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987-2000.