the separate conservative base

While I was away last week, Democracy Corps published a study based on focus groups of core Republican voters in Atlanta and Independents in Cleveland. The core or “base” Republicans held several beliefs that really separated them from other voters. They thought that Obama and the Democrats were deliberately trying to destroy the American economic system to pave the way for an authoritarian takeover. They believed that they had special information or insights because they watch people like Glenn Beck who report news that is deliberately hidden by the rest of the media. They felt an obligation to spread this news to other Americans, because the only thing keeping most of their fellow citizens from resisting the Democratic Administration was a lack of information. In contrast, Independents were dissatisfied with and skeptical about the Obama Administration so far, but they believed the president was trying to do a good job and shared their basic values.

According to the Democracy Corps, “the conservative Republican base represents almost one-in-five voters in the electorate, and nearly two out of every three self-identified Republicans.” That would imply a major tactical problem for Republicans. Participants in the Democracy Corps focus groups were highly skeptical of the GOP and will demand evidence that the party really shares their views. They will want to hear Republican candidates and party leaders say very explicitly that Obama (or at least Pelosi and Reid) are trying to destroy America. But those claims are exactly what alienate Independents and moderate Republicans.

For the Democrats, the lesson of the focus groups would basically be to ignore the Republican base, who mainly pose a threat to the GOP. Democrats should be careful not to let themselves believe that their important critics are right-wingers who see Obama as a socialist who was born in Kenya. The critics who matter to Democrats are Independents who see Obama as a good and smart American citizen who’s trying to help–but who has spent too much money too fast on things like auto and bank bailouts.

I think this is the right advice for Democrats, but I also suspect that the Democracy Corps study overestimates the prevalence of the views they found in the Atlanta focus groups. Participants in those groups matched about one in five voters in their answers to specific poll questions. That’s the basis for saying that they represented 20% of the electorate and two thirds of Republicans. But the focus group participants also expressed “adulation” for Glenn Beck. “More than half of the respondents in our conservative Republicans groups indicated that they try to watch or listen to Beck on a daily basis, with some going to great lengths to ensure they (and their families) do not miss a thing.” Beck’s daily audience is less than 3 million. The number of ballots cast in 2008 was 131 million. John McCain got 60 million votes. So even if you triple Beck’s daily audience to estimate the number of voters who closely share his views (and if you assume that all his viewers are eligible to vote), you still get a proportion of the electorate that’s more like 7% than 20%–and a proportion of Republican voters that’s more like 15% than 66%. That’s good news for Republicans because it means they can ignore their own relatively small “base” without as serious a penalty as the Democracy Corps study suggests. For Democrats, it just underlines the importance of addressing the criticisms of moderates, not the attacks by extreme conservatives.

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