Wednesday 3 November 2010

What explains the swing from more to less government?

Maybe this stat defines the night: 56% of the electorate thinks the government is doing things better left to businesses and individuals. 80% of these people voted Republican. 38% of the electorate thinks the government needs to do more, and 80% of these people voted Democratic.

blogs Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic.

That does marks a significant shift - a 13% swing from more to less government - from the 2008 election night exit poll.

There 51% said that government should do more to solve people's problems, and that 43% said that government was doing too many things better left to business and individuals. "Doing too much" had led 49-46 on election night in 2004, and had been ahead when the question had been asked since 1994.

However last night's exit poll finding does contrast with much of last month's major "role of government survey" by the Washington Post and partners (which shows an appetite for more government, as I blogged earlier today).

So what might explain the difference?

One contributory factor to this contrast will be differential turnout.

ABC reports that:

The Republicans relied on differential turnout. Among Tuesday's voters, 46 percent voted for Obama in 2008, 45 percent for John McCain -- an election Obama won by 53-45percent.

I expect there will be more numbers to gauge what the scale of this "enthusiasm gap" - the relative strength of Republican mobilisation versus somewhat disillusioned Democrats. A record proportion of the electorate identified as Conservative. This would explain some (but not all) of the swing on the role of government.

It is also perenially the case that "less government" is considerably more popular in the abstract than cutting back most of the (often popular) things that government does, as the Washington Post survey shows most Americans want more on most fronts.

So 60% of US voters want their Congressman to push for more spending to support jobs for their own district. And almost no candidate could be persuaded to propose significant specific national spending cuts during the election campaign.

Writing in Newsweek, back in 2008, I suggested the pro-government polling in that year's exit poll could provide grounds for optimism for Obama but would need to be treated with caution. (Obama did not particularly use the civic activism of his campaign to make a bottom-up case for government, to challenge the idea that it was imposing change on citizens, and this affected the healthcare debate).

I wrote then:

"Barack Obama will surely be aware of both his mandate for active government — and its narrow and contingent nature. But he is better placed than Clinton. The activism of his campaign could help him to articulate why civic engagement and government action are necessary partners, not alternatives as the right claims, and also to present a more attractive, bottom-up argument for how government can respond to citizens' concerns. The U.S. right in opposition is likely to return to its ideological comfort zone, hoping that an intellectually coherent libertarian case for a much smaller state will fuel a political comeback. The British Conservative recovery offers an opposing lesson: David Cameron tries his best to sound progressive—claiming that inequality and the environment are now the great causes of Thatcher's party. So a return to electability may depend on repaying the tribute to Bill Clinton: that an age of global-capital flows, climate change and fragile states means that "the era of minimal government is over," too.

The right has now thrived politically - for now - on the smaller government message, giving it something to campaign against in opposition.

Putting the message into practice will be something else again.

If new smaller government Republican Congressman have ever wondered why political heroes like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher proved unable to cut public spending, or significantly reduce the size of the state, they may just be about to find out.

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