Why 2006 Isn’t Like 1994

David Winston, a Republican pollster and Roll Call contributing writer, has an interesting op-ed this morning entitled, “2006 Isn’t Like 1994 Because the Democrats Are Too Far Left.” While he makes several salient points, the argument boils down to this:

In 1994, when the Democrats were in control, the country and its center-right electorate were being governed by a left-center party. Until then, Democrats held the majority through hardball gerrymandering and delivering solutions to voter concerns. Along with scandal, what cost them the majority in 1994 was voters’ lack of confidence in Democratic solutions, exemplified by then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s health care plan. When Democrats didn’t deliver what voters wanted, it sparked a realignment, with the electorate finally moving to where it should have been for years – to a center-right party.

Then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) won the battle for control not because he offered voters a center-right ideology but because he backed up his party’s conservative philosophy with center-right solutions. These were not overnight ideas crafted as campaign messages but rather long-standing proposals that coalesced into the “Contract with America.” Today, Republicans must solve problems, too, but they are governing in a different environment. Voters may be unhappy at the moment, but they have not left the center-right ideological camp. This gives Republicans good ground from which to battle back.

In a recent New Models survey, we asked voters to place Democrats, Republicans and themselves on a nine-point ideological scale with one being “very liberal” and nine “very conservative.” Of those tested, voters perceived Howard Dean as the most liberal at 3.7. They gave the Democratic Party a 3.9 rating. Both President Bush and the Republican Party got a 6.6 rating. The numbers take on real meaning, however, when put in the context of how voters see themselves ideologically. On average, voters put their own political ideology at 5.7 – clearly center-right, and within less than a point of the GOP. The voters’ perception of Democrats, on the other hand, was significantly to their left.

What this says is that Democrats are not what the electorate is looking for. And clearly, Democrats are not making any serious attempt to be what voters want. Unlike Republicans in ’94, they aren’t offering a center-left “contract” to sway voters because they understand that voters would reject that kind of legislative liberal agenda.

This is at variance with other surveys that show Democrats outpolling Republicans in generic congressional races. Still, that the public thinks the Democratic Party is in almost the same place ideologically as Howard Dean is interesting. It’s not inconceivable to me that a leaders like Dean and Nanci Pelosi, combined with the radicalism of the Democratic ‘Netroots, is driving public perception of the party.

In addition to the ideological issues Winston points to, I continue to believe structural issues will differentiate this election from 1994. Most notably, there simply aren’t nearly as many open Republican seats in 2006 as there were open Democratic seats in 1994.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2006, General, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. McGehee says:

    This is at variance with other surveys that show Democrats outpolling Republicans in generic congressional races.

    And we all know how useful the generic numbers are in predicting outcomes several months out. ;-/

  2. Alan says:

    It is interesting the public considers Dean to be a liberal. The Anonymous Liberal had an insightful comment on this today http://www.anonymousliberal.com/2006/05/iraqification-of-american-politics.html

  3. Tano says:

    Yes, the Dean point is quite instructive. He was out ahead of the American people on the war issue (turned out to be right, of course), and made strong appeals to young people (which makes one look liberal, I guess), but he was actually soemwhat to the right of the mainstream of the party on the traditional issues by which one judges these things (fiscal hawk, anti-gun control, anti-gay marriage etc). The perception of him as liberal was a triumph of political propagande, from his opponents in the primaries, and from the republicans who wanted someone to ridicule and demonize.

    For that reasons, and many others (“the electorate finally moving to where it should have been for years – to a center-right party”.) Winston’s piece comes off clearly as, well – what it is. A partisan Republican spin on things – of no value whatsoever to anyone who wants to get a neutral dispassionate analysis of electoral dynamics.

  4. yetanotherjohn says:

    I think that all of this adds up to why we are likely to not see major change in congress. Each contest will come down to a choice between two individuals (okay some of the contests will be uncontested). In all the elections but especially in the open elections, part of the baggage will be the party identification. Voters who on average see the democratic party twice as far from them as they see the republican party are likely to respond as such. Part of the elections, especially when an incumbent is involved, will be about the individual and their characteristics.

    The way congressional districts are drawn, the number of open seats, which districts have scandal influencing them and which don’t, the republicans out raising the dems on money (and seeming to be able to more wisely spend the money also) and many other factors will impact the election.

    The real question to me is how disaffected the right will be with republicans. Right now we are hearing a lot of chest beating about how the republicans are being conservative enough and that they can’t expect support if they don’t do whatever. The democrats get a similar chorus from the left. But when it comes down to it, neither the left nor the right would like things better if the other side was in power. If you are unhappy with the republicans on immigration, do you really think a Pelosi or Reid bill is going to make you happier?

    So which side can get more foot soldiers into the polling booth? The right has tended to have the advantage. I think this is in part because one of the core philosophies of the right is the duty of individual responsibility which would translate in the duty of the individual to vote. For the lefts collectivist view, it becomes easier to rely on the other guy to vote.

    My prediction is that the republicans will throw some red meat to the right to appease them (and further anger the left, though I think that meter is pretty well pegged). We won’t see a major shift and certainly not a change of majority. We might even see a slight pick up of seats. In short, the left can’t get much more energized and mad and the right can still be rallied.

    But now lets posit a worse case scenario for the left. Assume they lose seats. This would mark the third election in this trend (2002, 2004 and our posited 2006). Does this drive the left to continue what hasn’t worked or to split into different parties of orthodoxy. My guess is a split. That those who think the problem is a bright enough line hasn’t been drawn will ignore the advantages of working within the democratic party for the purity of a third party movement. And that will likely hasten their decline. We shall see.

  5. LJD says:

    He was out ahead of the American people on the war issue (turned out to be right, of course),

    Outside of the minds of those who are politically motivated towards such an end, the jury is still out. At the least, I’d say it is way too early to say he was ‘right’.

    The perception of him as liberal was a triumph of political propagande, from his opponents in the primaries, and from the republicans who wanted someone to ridicule and demonize.

    NO ONE has done more to affect the ‘perception’ of Howard Dean, than Howard Dean.

  6. Herb Ely says:

    This morning liberal Washington Post columnist wrote digital lynch mob. He surveyed email response to a previous column and found his democratic correspondents so filled with vitriol and hatred that he suspects the dems will lose the next election.

  7. Roger says:

    All of the talk of a Republican Age is whistling past the graveyard. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000. This despite the country’s extremely negative reaction to the Lewinsky scandal and after years of extreme political attacks on the president and an out-of-control “independent” prosecutor who came up empty.

    Bush eked by in 2004 despite the advantages of incumbency and the tendency to rally round following 9/11 and the Rovian scare tactics. At the same time the SCLM was at work consistently pretending invented faith-based realities were the equivalent of reality-based realities.

    We’ll see in ’06 and ’08 if reality makes a comeback. I suspect it will.

  8. anjin-san says:

    Another thing to factor in to this line of thought is that in ’94 we has a reasonably popular President doing a decent job. in ’06 we have a train wreck of histoic proportions in the White House.

    I think that reality will tend to offset the valid arguement that the Democrats are not really doing all that great of a job themselves.

  9. LJD says:

    Helllooooo! Earth to Moonbats…. United State PErsidential elections are NOT decided on popular votes! (Thank God)

  10. Roger says:

    Good old LDJ is back. The master of logic. “Moonbats.” Ouch! They can’t even come up with a good ad hominem.

    That said, LJD, the popular vote does have some correlation to the reality or fantasy of a “Republican Age” dawning. I know you have no truck with reality, but I believe the rumors of reality’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.