As promised, Barack Obama is bringing change to America. He's making it more Republican.
It's not that more people are actually becoming Republicans or calling themselves Republicans — the number of voters who formally identify with the party is at its lowest point in years. But we appear to be in the early stages of a shift in which political independents, people who not too long ago were sick of Republicans, are now leaning toward GOP positions on some key issues.
They still call themselves independents, but they're worried by the left-leaning policies of President Obama and the Democratic Congress, especially on the economy. “The middle, which wanted to move away from George W. Bush, did not want to move this far left,” says a Republican pollster who is tracking the shift. “They are tending to agree with what Republicans are saying more and more, despite the previous eight years.”
For example, in a private poll done recently for the House GOP leadership, voters were asked whether they think the economic stimulus package is working. The two parties were on opposite sides of the question — 60 percent of Democrats said the stimulus is working, and 79 percent of Republicans said it's not. But among independents, 57 percent said the stimulus is not working — a number much closer to the Republican than the Democratic position.
When you look at public attitudes toward the budget, health care, the environment, and other top issues, you see a similar picture: Republicans and Democrats are on either end of the spectrum, but independents aren't exactly in the middle. They're leaning a little bit right. And even though Republicans remain unpopular, voters seem willing to take a new look at them, if only by default.
Last month's NBC/Wall Street Journal poll asked whether people would prefer to see next year's elections result in a Congress controlled by Democrats, or a Congress controlled by Republicans. People gave a slight edge to Democrats, 48 percent to 45 percent. Last year at this time, the Democratic lead was 19 points — a clear move toward Republicans.
On a related issue, the Gallup organization is finding a new trend toward conservatism. Gallup conducts thousands of interviews with Americans each year and always asks respondents to describe their political views. So far in 2009, 40 percent of those surveyed call themselves conservative. That's up from 37 percent in 2007 and 2008, when the percentage of people who called themselves conservative fell to its lowest point in more than a decade.
The change is entirely attributable to movement among independents. In Gallup's 2008 interviews, 29 percent of independents described themselves as conservative. This year, 35 percent do.
Gallup cites a lot of factors to explain the shift. An increasing number of people believe there's too much government regulation of business; more people want the government to promote traditional values; more believe that labor unions are too influential in our politics; more oppose restrictive gun laws, and on and on.
The bottom line is, there is simply no doubt that the shift leftward that we saw from 2006 to 2008 has stopped and is now moving in the other direction.
It's no surprise that opinion moves back and forth. What is surprising is that it is starting so quickly. Not very long ago, we heard pundits tell us that our politics had changed, that we were entering an age of Obama, that the sun had set on the Republicans' cherished notion of America as a center-right country.
It turns out America is a center-right country after all. It was just tired of George Bush and the GOP leadership.
Recently we've seen a spate of articles suggesting that the Republican Party is in the worst shape it has been for decades. And it's true that the GOP is not just out of power but way out of power, with powerless minorities in both houses of Congress and no clout at all in the White House. Yet at the same time, there are important undercurrents moving in the GOP's direction.
Maybe the trend won't continue. Maybe Obama will triumph on issue after issue. Maybe Republicans will fall on their faces again. But right now, with Democrats at the height of their power, things are quietly moving toward the GOP — far sooner than anyone thought.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appears on www.ExaminerPolitics.com.
Note: Some readers have suggested I have my math wrong on the private poll I cited about the stimulus. The numbers, and my reading of them, are correct. To clarify, here are the complete figures from that question on whether the stimulus is working or not working, with the percentage of people who believe the stimulus is working first:
Republicans 12 — 79
Independents 35 — 57
Democrats 60 — 25
Among those who think the stimulus is not working, there is a 22-point gap between independents and Republicans, and a 32-point gap between independents and Democrats. Among those who think the stimulus is working, there is a 23-point gap between independents and Republicans and a 25-point gap between independents and Democrats.
On this question, Independents are closer to Republicans than they are to Democrats.
The critics' mistake is to forget that approve/disapprove numbers rarely add up to 100 percent. There is usually some group of people who don't know or who have no opinion, and that is the case in this poll — so it is not correct to assume that because 60 percent of Democrats believe the stimulus is working, then 40 believe it is not working.
Thanks for reading.