The liberal coalition may not be as liberal as you'd expect. According to the most recent "Battleground Poll" from the George Washington University and Politico, there are some surprisingly large reservoirs of conservatism among many voter groups typically viewed as card-carrying members of the liberal voting bloc.
In some cases, a majority of these voters actually describe themselves as conservative. And in many ways they have begun to turn on the president's relentlessly liberal agenda. Clearly, much more ideological turbulence is to be found these days on the left than on the right.
Here are some examples, drawn from the response to the question asking voters to categorize themselves according to their ideology.
Among the takeaways are:
While conservatives outnumber liberals two to one (63 percent to 32 percent) in congressional districts controlled by the GOP, Democratic lawmakers represent districts with a much more balanced ideological breakdown - 46 percent conservative to 49 percent liberal. This suggests that more Democratic lawmakers may need to watch their backs when they vote a hard-left line than the other way around. And when it comes to Obama's handling of such crucial issues as jobs, federal spending, and the economy, Democratic-controlled districts are not exactly rife with Obama mania. Fully 46 percent disapprove of his handling of the jobs issue, half disapprove of his economic policies, and 53 percent give a big thumbs down on his spending habits.
Similarly, union households, 60 percent of which swooned for Obama in 2008, split right down the middle ideologically. This must be an inconvenient truth, to say the least, for the increasingly radical leftist leadership of the modern labor movement. And it's all the more reason for conservatives to reinvigorate efforts to liberate union members from being required to pay dues against their will.
The findings on Hispanics are especially interesting. Obama, it is often noted, won two-thirds of Hispanic votes in 2008. But ideologically, this group is up for grabs -- 51 percent are conservative and 49 percent liberal. And the gender gap here is the reverse of the typical dynamic. Usually, women lean more to the liberal side than do men. For example, women who are white, or under age 45, or politically independent tend to be more liberal than their male counterparts. Hispanic women, though, are more likely to be conservative (54 percent) than are Hispanic men (49 percent). The internal data in the Battleground poll reinforce the sense that Hispanics should be very receptive to conservative messages, especially those relating to the economy, jobs, and spending. Hispanic men, in particular, should be a target audience for our message of limited government and pro-growth economic policies -- 87 percent of them list pocketbook issues as their primary concern.
Urban dwellers are also nearly as conservative (45 percent) as liberal (47 percent). Considering that 63 percent of them cast their ballots for Obama in 2008, this suggests either that a quiet ideological realignment is underway in our cities, or that Obama waltzed into the Oval Office with the support of millions of urban conservatives. Here, too, we find precious few happy campers. The majority is disappointed with the president's handling of spending and the economy, and a plurality with his performance on the jobs issue.
Finally, the ideological profile of those who are only marginally, or not at all, religious will raise a few eyebrows. One of the most pronounced political divides in recent elections has been among those who do or do not attend religious services. In 2008, for example, John McCain secured 55 percent of the vote from those who attend religious services at least weekly -- nearly 10 percentage points higher than his share of the total vote. Candidate Obama, however, won the affections of more than 60 percent of those who never or rarely attend services. Who would have thought, then, that barely three years later a comfortable majority (53 percent) of infrequent church-goers identify as conservative, or that the religiously inactive are only marginally more liberal (48 percent) than not (45 percent)? Nonreligious Americans in particular are angst-ridden over the sour economy. Over half (55 percent) reject Obama's handling of the economy, and 60 percent feel he has both spent too much and failed to deliver on the jobs front.
The lesson here is that the conservative brand is perfectly acceptable in many corners of the coalition that comprises blue America. That may explain why strategists on the left feel it is so important to toss what Ross Perot famously described as "monkey dust" into the air to cloud debates on so many important policy issues and dissuade these voters from entertaining and ultimately embracing conservative solutions. It also explains why leftist politicians use conservative rhetoric to sell their wares: It not only works among middle-of-the-road voters, it can be effective within their own political base.
The debates that threaten to decouple these voters from the liberal political machine tend to involve questions of fairness, the best routes out of poverty, and how best to enable ordinary Americans to achieve the American Dream. These include policies that offer educational options to children in low-income families, require welfare recipients to work and act responsibly in exchange for benefits, and end discriminatory mandates that require employers and schools to prefer some racial groups over others.
These voters likely are turned off when government bureaucrats tilt the playing field in favor of the politically connected in energy or tax policy. Why, after all, should they pay more for the energy they consume just because government know-it-alls prefer ethanol, solar, and wind energy over nuclear, coal, natural gas, and oil? And how many of them look askance at Obama's class-warfare rhetoric when they aspire to one day to be millionaires and even billionaires? It is not hard to imagine that, in today's unforgiving economic climate, the conservative gene lurking within these voters may prove quite receptive to the case for free markets and free citizens, and if properly nurtured, may begin to emerge in voting behavior that surprises pundits on Election Day.
This is not to say that inner-city Detroit will be a welcoming venue for a CPAC convention any time soon. But because the conservative command of the ideological high ground extends to so many categories of non-traditional conservative voters, we need to develop more effective ways to communicate our policy ideas that appeal to their conservative instincts.
Michael G. Franc is vice president of government studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in CBS News