It's no secret that this country has become incredibly polarized along partisan lines -- witness the difference in President Obama's approval ratings, according to Gallup polling for October 12-18. Obama has 84 percent job approval among Democrats, just 16 percent approval among Republicans, and 48 percent support among independents, as one might expect.
Obama's overall approval rating was 52 percent; his disapproval rating was 41 percent.
The partisan disparity is familiar. In April 2008 we saw a 60-point spread between President Bush's 66 percent Gallup approval among Republicans and his 6 percent rating from Democrats (with independents at 24 percent), not that much less than today's 68-point difference for Obama.
But what we see now seems to be qualitatively different. Although Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, strategist James Carville, and two of Greenberg's polling associates, Karl Agne and Jim Gerstein, are hardly dispassionate observers, focus groups sponsored by their Democracy Corps project provide a useful perspective. A group of conservative Republican voters in Atlanta and a comparable gathering of white, non-college-educated independents and weak partisans in Cleveland highlighted the intensely personal nature of the Republican base's opposition to Obama.
The Democracy Corps pollsters and strategists don't approach this as objective observers, but that doesn't mean their research is tainted. Their project seems designed to help Democratic candidates and operatives better understand voters who are intensely critical of the president. The crux of their findings is that those in the conservative GOP base -- who the Democrats estimate make up a fifth of voters overall and two of three self-described Republicans -- believe that Obama "is ruthlessly advancing a 'secret agenda' to bankrupt the United States and dramatically expand government control to an extent nothing short of socialism."
The Democracy Corps report noted "a profound sense of collective identity" on individual aspects of that argument and the seriousness of its adherents. "In our conversations, it was striking how these voters constantly characterized themselves as part of a group of individuals who share a set of beliefs, a unique knowledge, and a commitment of opposition to Obama that sets them apart from the majority of the country," the report said. "They readily identify themselves as a minority in this country -- a minority whose values are mocked and attacked by a liberal media and class of elites. They also believe they possess a level of knowledge and understanding when it comes to politics and current events, one gained from a rejection of the mainstream media and an embrace of conservative media and pundits such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh."
From my recent travels and conversations with friends and relatives, particularly those from the South, this description rings true. Obama's election and the Democratic gains in Congress have convinced conservatives that their view is not universally held. But that conviction just adds to the urgency they see in getting their message out and convincing others of the danger they see for our country. As the Democracy Corps report says, "They believe this position leaves them with a responsibility to spread the word, to educate those who do not share their insights, and to take back the country that they love."
Democrats and liberals can scoff and try to dismiss such views, but they should realize that adherents hold these attitudes so intensely that they will be determined to vote in 2010, and that in a midterm election in which turnout is inherently lower than in presidential years, the most-motivated voters carry a disproportionate advantage. The intensity that Democrats and liberals had in their opposition to Bush and Republicans in 2006 and 2008 has transferred to conservatives and Republicans.
Democrats would have to set up machine-gun nests to keep these people from voting, while the lethargy among Democratic voters is palpable.
But also coming through in the report is the disdain that many of these conservative Republicans have toward their own party; they see the GOP as "ineffective and rudderless, controlled by a class of political professionals who have lost touch with not only the people but the conservative values that should guide them.... They are most likely to cite the prescription drug benefit and [Bush's] failure to rein in spending or the size of government."
That is the challenge for GOP candidates next year: They must portray themselves as distinct from the Republican Party that base voters see as having let them down.
This article appears in the October 24, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine.