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(CNN)American politics is in a state of high flux and both parties are searching, painfully, for balance.
Democrats are holding on to threadbare majorities in the House and Senate and desperate to reach a major accomplishment before midterm politics take over the calendar.
But rather than speak as one, the party’s progressives from blue states are in a public and damaging spat with its few majority-making moderates: Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
What should be sending alarm bells through the White House and Democratic circles is that independents are turning on President Joe Biden in recent polls.
An all-or-nothing approach that could leave Democrats with nothing. The disagreement could sabotage both a bipartisan infrastructure proposal and a much larger bill that would seek to address climate change as well as grant new social safety net programs to educate US kids, provide day care like other industrialized nations and more.
Liberals in the party have organized to tie the two proposals together. The problem is they don’t have enough votes for anything in the Senate without the party’s moderates.
CNN’s Harry Enten writes that success on these measures, particularly the bipartisan infrastructure bill, could improve Biden’s standing, especially among independents.
Are Democrats more Manchin or Sanders? CNN’s Manu Raju boils the current rift in the Democratic Party down to a feud between Manchin and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent whose mission in life is to push the party to the left.
Which path will Republicans take? The GOP is eyeing the very likely possibility, no matter what it does, of controlling the House after the next election — history is very much on its side.
But the Republicans are also choosing their identity as they eye winning the tightly contested governor’s race in Virginia. Will they be the party of conspiracy theories or fiscal restraint? Will they turn out Trump’s base or win the independent voters he lost in 2020?
The Trump path vs. the Youngkin path. As CNN’s Dan Merica writes Friday, the GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin is walking a tightrope, acknowledging Biden’s 2020 victory but also buying into election skepticism fueled by Trump and calling for an audit of Virginia voting systems.
Youngkin is far more interested in talking about whether Virginia parents should get more say in their kids’ mask or vaccine status than he is in false talking points from Trump about rigged elections.
In order to win, Youngkin will need both voters appalled by the idea that Trump attempted a coup, as alleged in a new report from a Senate committee on the January 6 insurrection, and those who genuinely buy into the former President’s misinformation.
Note: Congressional inquiries into the insurrection will largely cease if Republicans take control of Capitol Hill. Moving past the insurrection would be bad for accountability. It would also be bad for Democrats politically.
“National politics especially can’t just be a battle for the middle,” CNN Political Director David Chalian said during an appearance on “Inside Politics” about independent voters. “Because of how polarized we are, it’s a both-ends proposition. You’ve got to rev up that base and you’ve got to try to win the middle.”
Electing a Republican governor in Virginia would be a huge upset for the GOP. The state went to Biden by 10 points in 2020. A Republican hasn’t won a governor’s race since 2009. Then again, that was the year after President Barack Obama was first elected to the White House, and it was a first indicator that Democrats were about to lose the House a year later.
Independents win elections. Trump won independents in 2016, and he won the White House. He lost them in 2020, and he lost the election.
Yes, Trump received fewer votes both times. But the current GOP has a systemic advantage. Republicans have routinely taken the White House with fewer votes (2000 and 2016). Their 50 senators represent far fewer voters than Democrats’ 50 senators.
More independents than Republicans or Democrats. In fact, as “Inside Politics” outlined this week, the largest chunk of Americans is in neither party.
The most recent CNN polling suggests this national breakdown:
- 29% of Americans identify as Republicans.
- 35% say they are Democrats.
- 36%, the largest slice, say they are independent or something else.
That does not mean that more than a third of the public is up for grabs, according to CNN’s John King, who noted that independents lean one way or another:
- 51% of independents lean Republican.
- 46% lean toward Democrats.
That’s a relatively even split among independents. But they mostly agree that they’re not well represented in Washington and that the country is on the wrong track.
King asked the Democratic pollster Margie Omero why people might prefer to view themselves as independent.
“We aspire to be independent,” she said. “Think of the word ‘independent’ outside of the political context. We want our kids to be independent and want to live independently. There’s something about being independent that seems very American before you even get to the party.”
Ideology and party are not the same thing. There was a fascinating, lengthy New York Times Opinion profile of the Democratic pollster David Shor, who argues that liberals have an outsize voice in the party. They are pushing for more extreme social justice policies — “defund police” is the example cited in the story — that might turn off many other Democrats.
Here’s a passage from the Times piece:
“Shor believes the party has become too unrepresentative at its elite levels to continue being representative at the mass level. ‘I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the people we’ve lost are likely to be low-socioeconomic-status people,’ he said. ‘If you look inside the Democratic Party, there are three times more moderate or conservative nonwhite people than very liberal white people, but very liberal white people are infinitely more represented.'”
Ideological divides also exist on the right. But they are overshadowed by Trump’s hold on the Republican Party. Evan McMullin, a conservative who ran for president as an independent in 2016, is challenging Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a onetime Trump critic who is now on board with Trump.
Politics are cyclical. Back in 2009, it was Lee who ousted a sitting Republican senator.
Democrat and liberal, Republican and conservative — these are not interchangeable terms. I asked CNN’s polling director, Jennifer Agiesta, what points are important when it comes to independents, and she noted the longer-term shift in self-identified ideologies within the parties. Gallup tracks this and it’s very interesting.
Not all Democrats are liberal. Recall that CNN’s polling data shows 35% of Americans say they are Democrats. In Gallup’s data on ideology, however, just 25% of Americans said they were liberal in 2020. And that’s near a record high for liberals. It was 17% back when Bill Clinton was elected president, and 21% when Obama was elected.
There are far more conservatives — 36% — than liberals in the US, the same percentage as in 1992.
There are fewer moderates in the long run. It was 43% back in 1992, and it was 35% in 2020.
Still, the portion of Democrats who say they’re liberal has soared from 25% in 1994 to 51% today. So has the portion of Republicans who say they’re conservative, from 58% in 1994 to 75% today.
This helps explain why neither party is looking at a large governing majority anytime soon. In an increasingly polarized country, Democrats would need to find a way to appeal to conservatives. Republicans would need to find a way to appeal to liberals.