Since launching her presidential bid last month, Hillary Clinton has stayed low-key, local and left. Quite a contrast from her last time around, when she emphasized her experience, toughness and centrism. She’s now the feminist grandmother who has embraced liberal policies on immigration, trade, criminal over-incarceration and marriage equality.
Hillary is not just chasing the Democratic base, she’s chasing the electorate – which Gallup polling confirmed on Friday has moved sharply left, most notably on the very social issues that Clinton is championing.
According to Gallup, there has been a swing of 17 points in favor of liberal social policies since the year Barack Obama took office in 2009. Gallup has been polling Americans’ self-description of their views on social policies since 1999, at which time those who considered themselves to be conservative or very conservative numbered 39% to a much lower 21% self-described as liberals or very liberal. The gap between the two started to narrow in the last term of the George W. Bush Administration before widening again in Obama’s first year – perhaps in reaction to the uncertainties unleashing by the Great Recession.
Since 2011, however, the trend line has found liberals gaining ground quickly and conservatives losing it – so that today, the ideological camps are even at 31% each. The present tie in the liberal-conservative divide is the first time this has happened and the liberal’s best showing ever.
Some of the liberalization in the electorate can be ascribed to folks changing their minds. But a good chunk of it is a change in the very makeup of the electorate itself.
According to a Pew Research Center projection done during the last presidential election, the demographics of the American people will undergo a radical makeover by 2050:
- Hispanic share of the U.S. population as high as 29%, up from 17%
- Black proportion of the population projected to rise slightly to 13%
- Asian share projected to increase to 9% from 5%
- Non-Hispanic whites, however, will decrease to less than 50% of the population from 63%
Within the Democratic base, those that described themselves to Gallup as liberals are up 10 points, while moderates are down 5 points and conservatives down 6 since 2012. Even among Republicans, self-described conservatives are down 4 points, while moderates and liberals are up several points each.
So Jeb Bush was on to something when he said that a successful GOP candidate would need to “lose the primary to win the general [election]” – although Jeb is on track to win neither.
The reverse may be true on the Democratic side: a successful candidate can both win the Democratic primary as a liberal and the general election on the same platform. This is a pretty stunning turn of events from the Reagan years when the president made “liberal” a dirty word. Perhaps the change in attitudes is both a backlash against the narrowness of 1980’s conservatism along with the changing demographics.
The same Gallup poll on Friday showed that on economic issues, conservatives still lead liberals by 20 points – 39% to 19%. While this is a pretty wide margin, it is also the smallest margin since Gallup has been polling the issue since 1999.
So I wouldn’t expect Hillary to stake out much more populist positions on tax and spend policies – which is too bad but probably still reflects the ghost of Reagan. But changing attitudes also underscore the Republican’s desperation in the presidential campaign. They can’t run on social issues without looking extremely retrograde and alienating the bulk of voters, especially the young. They can’t run on the economy because it has improved markedly since Obama was elected, and if anything, the issue of economic inequality helps Democrats, not Republicans.
Instead, Republicans have settled on foreign policy – on which few vote – and Clinton scandals – about which only they care – as their campaign themes.
Certainly, circumstances can change in the next year and a half before the election, and new events will alter the calculus. But for Hillary, that old Satchel Paige saying may be apt: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you” – this time, in a good way.