WASHINGTON — Ever since the contested election of 2000, when the presidential race resulted in a near tie, pundits have pointed to the polarized, 50-50 nature of American politics.
Now, with a chastened President Bush talking the language of common ground and Democrats owing their takeover of the House and the Senate to political independents, the center is back.
The GOP strategy of the past several elections – of mobilizing its most committed voters at the expense of appealing to swing voters in the middle – is fading fast.
It may be a fleeting moment, and it does not spell the end of polarization. According to national exit poll data, more than 90 percent of self-identified Republicans and Democrats voted for candidates of their own party for the House, as they did in 2004. But among independents, who represent about a quarter of the electorate, there was a decided tilt toward Democrats on Tuesday: 57 percent voted Democratic, and 39 percent voted Republican. In the 2004 House race, the independent tilt toward Democrats was 50 to 46.
An examination of exit polls from Senate races that proved key to the Democrats' apparent takeover shows a similarly strong tilt toward Democrats among independents.
On Thursday afternoon Sen. George Allen conceded defeat to Democrat James Webb, which gives the Democrats a 51-49 majority in the Senate.
Nationally, "the independents won this election for us," Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told a Monitor breakfast Thursday.
The Republican strategy of turning out "base" supporters and just enough independents to win the White House and Congress – which worked in the past three elections – could not withstand the wave of voter discontent over Iraq, ethics, and the economy that swept the nation this year. Many longstanding Republican members representing swing or Democratic-leaning districts, such as Jim Leach in Iowa, Clay Shaw in Florida, Nancy Johnson in Connecticut, and Anne Northup in Kentucky, lost their seats. None were tainted by ethics problems, or significantly less well-thought-of by their constituents than in previous years. But they had R's after their names.
Then there are the Republican districts that fell to Democrats, largely because of scandals, such as the seats once held by Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, and Rep. Mark Foley of Florida. Holding on to those seats in the next election will be an uphill battle for the Democrats who won them, but analysts do not rule out the possibility that they can perform well for their constituents and hang on.
One turnout question that can now be answered centers on white evangelicals and born-again Christians, who represent 24 percent of the electorate and form a critical part of the GOP base. Despite predictions that their turnout might be depressed on Tuesday, because of discouragement over scandals and a sense that not enough progress has been made on their social agenda, they turned out just as strongly as in 2004. Seventy percent voted Republican for the House versus 72 percent in 2004.
In other ways, though, America has shaken off its 50-50 moorings. "But there's no guarantee that [the Democrats] will do better than 50-50 two years from now," says Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. "It was an extraordinary election in which we had the most unpopular president at midterm since Truman, with an unpopular war and a public that is fed up. The voters had a unified Republican government for a target."
The only sign of anything permanent developing in the electorate as a whole, Mr. Jacobson says, is that throughout the six years of Mr. Bush's presidency, younger voters have been going disproportionately Democratic.
On a regional level, though, analysts say that Tuesday's wave had its biggest impact in parts of the country that have been undergoing a political realignment, particularly in the Northeast. In Pennsylvania, the Democrats took over four Republican seats. In New Hampshire, the state's two House seats fell to Democrats in a late-breaking surge. In Connecticut, Ms. Johnson, a 12-term congresswoman, went down, and another incumbent, Rep. Rob Simmons, is slightly behind in a race still too close to call. Several Republican-held seats in New York also went Democratic.
Just as with the 1994 midterm elections, in which the Republicans swept the Democrats out of the majority in Congress in part by defeating southern Democrats, so too was the 2006 "wave" election an opportunity for Democrats to advance the political realignment of the Northeast.
The mountain West has also grown increasingly competitive for Democrats. Come January, Montana will have two Democratic senators, and it elected a Democratic governor in 2004. Colorado and Nevada have grown increasingly competitive for Democrats, in part owing to demographic shifts. Libertarian sentiment in that part of the country has also alienated some Westerners from the Republican Party's social agenda.
Perhaps most interesting in Tuesday's shakeout vote are the Republicans in swing or Democratic-leaning districts who managed to hang on this cycle, such as Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut.
"I can only assume [he won] because of hard work, big spending, and an image of real independence," says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.
Mr. Shays had been one of Bush's strongest supporters in the House on Iraq war policy, until late in the campaign. Shays might have been helped more by his independence from the White House on other issues, such as campaign finance and ethics.