by Andrew Kohut

Historic elections like last Tuesday’s inevitably invite wrong inferences. With big political changes in Washington, there is a natural tendency to make sweeping conclusions about how the electorate has changed. Here’s a quick list of important things about voter trends to keep in mind when considering what we have learned about how America voted this November:

First, the Democratic win is not a sign of political realignment. Yes, the Democrats won the popular vote, and the exit polls showed that more Democrats than Republicans voted (by 2 percentage points). But the popular vote margin favoring the Democrats was relatively modest, even though it resulted in many Democratic victories. Democrats won by almost the same margin by which Republicans won in 2002.

FigureThe turnout pattern was not that unusual either. A plurality of the electorate has been Democratic in three of the last five elections. Notable exceptions were in 2002 and 2004, when Karl Rove’s voter mobilization efforts bested the Democrats’ efforts (as shown in the chart).

In absolute terms, Republican turnout was probably on par with the ’02 election — G.O.P. voters did wake up in the end, as the last round of pre-election polls suggested, but it was too little, too late. Strong Democratic voter enthusiasm trumped the usual tendency of Republicans to vote at higher rates than Democrats and also overcame the much vaunted G.O.P. get-out-the-vote push.

A small Democratic turnout advantage notwithstanding, the electorate remains about evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Certainly the Democrats’ turnout edge was not big enough to account for their winning 52% of the popular vote in House races this year. (In 2004, the Republicans won the popular vote by a 51-percent-to-46-percent margin.)

Which brings us to the second important lesson: The outcome of this election — and others in our recent history — was determined by the shifting sentiments of independents and moderates. It is no exaggeration to say that the views of the least ideological voters decided this election for the Democrats.

Political independents, who divided their votes evenly between George Bush and John Kerry in 2004, swung decisively in favor of the Democrats this year. And moderates voted more Democratic than in 2004 by a 10-percentage-point margin.

Third, there are few signs that the Republican base deserted the party. Christian conservatives, and conservatives generally, voted as Republican as they did in ’02. Nor did white evangelical Protestants defect to the Democrats in any substantial number, as a number of post-election news stories have suggested. True, somewhat fewer white evangelical Protestants voted for Republican Congressional candidates than in 2004, when Bush was at the top of the ticket, but white evangelical protestant backing of G.O.P. candidates was just as great in 2006 as it was four years ago, when the Republicans won the popular vote by a sizable margin.

The real religion story of this election is that the least religious Americans — voters who attend church rarely or never — made the biggest difference to the outcome of the election. This group gave Democrats an even greater share of their vote — 67%, up from 55% in 2002.

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More from Andrew Kohut on the meaning of the November election

Issues the Republicans stressed paid few dividends: Most notably, the many voters concerned about terrorism backed GOP candidates over Democrats by only the modest margin of 5 percentage points. The threat of terrorism is still much on the public’s mind, but voters are no longer persuaded that Republicans know best how to deal with it. Discontent with Iraq has taken terrorism off the table for the Republicans. By a margin of 59%-35%, voters said that the war in Iraq did not improve U.S. security. And on the key question of which party would make the U.S. safer from terrorism, just 29% said that only Republicans would make the U.S. safer from terrorism, while 22% said only the Democrats, with 29% saying both equally.

The same is true for illegal immigration. Given the divided views that the public has about how to deal with immigration, the GOP press on that issue only succeeded in alienating Hispanic voters: The exit polls found 69% of Hispanics favoring Democratic candidates, up from 61% four years ago.

FigureDemocratic-leaning groups had the political energy this year… Twelve years ago in 1994, when Congress took its last big partisan swing, “angry white men” supplied the torque. This time the energized electorate had a totally different composition with young voters, women, and Democratic-leaning liberals joining seculars in leading the charge. As noted earlier, and as seen in the chart, among religious groups seculars made the biggest difference to the outcome of this election.

…But there is no evidence the country is moving culturally or ideologically to the left. As in 1994, the potential exists to make the same mistake that was made in interpreting the 1994 midterm swing — to exaggerate the importance of shifts in broad values. From all we know from the exit and opinion polls, it is safe to conclude that far from being about social values, or other broad ideological issues, this year’s midterm elections were a referendum on Bush and GOP control of Congress, a judgment about performance, not ideology.

Corruption charges, along with a number of other performance failures — notably the handling of the aftermath of hurricane Katrina — helped take Bush’s ratings down from 50% in Jan 2005 to 41% on election day. But Iraq was the central issue of this election. Voters who disapproved of the war overwhelmingly favored Democrats by 80% to 18%). War supporters backed the Republican in their district by virtually the same margin, but they were much smaller in number; just 42% approved of the war compared with 56% who disapproved.

The Bottom Line: Be careful not to over-read this election. Again, the evidence does not show that the message at the polls was either a turn to the left or the beginning of partisan re-alignment. The big Democratic victory was still predicated on a relatively narrow win in the popular vote. We remain a country about evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, in which the shifting sentiments of independents determine the outcome of elections.

Still, in terms of partisanship, two counter-balancing trends are worthy of special note:

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  • For the second election in a row, young people have voted more Democratic than people over 30 years of age. That is offset, however, by the surprising finding that seniors are voting more Republican.
  • Safe-seat redistricting, while potent, cannot withstand strong voter inclinations. Democrats won a number of seats in supposedly safe Republican districts and in the districts where Bush sailed to victory in ’04. Still, gerrymandering provides a cushion: in 1994, Democrats garnered the same percentage of the popular vote as did Republicans, but won many fewer seats.

In short, this is a difficult election for people who are looking for clear policy implications. Yes, the public is very unhappy with the war and wants to get American troops out of Iraq, but there is no consensus about how quickly. Many who opt for staying the course still want a clear timetable for troop withdrawal. And many who say they want a fast out, don’t mean that literally. In fact, if you add those who say “stay the course” to the number who say withdraw but slowly, a clear majority rejects a fast pullout of U.S. forces. The only clear message is frustration.

Attitudes toward the economy are equally ambivalent. Voter opinions about the state of the national economy improved in the final 2 weeks of the campaign; fully 48% of exit poll respondents rated it as excellent or good. Yet, voters who said the economy was extremely important to them voted Democratic by 59% to 39% when they cast a ballot.

To the extent that those most sensitive to the state of the economy are those whose personal finances are most precarious, this outcome might suggest that lower income voters were more resentful about economic misfortune than wealthy people were appreciative of policies that may have benefited them. If this is so, it might indicate the start of some significant political reaction to wage stagnation. It is noteworthy that referenda to raise the minimum wage passed in 6 states.

A similar push-pull is seen on the immigration issue. Porous borders do raise concern, but many Americans recognize the economic contributions of immigrants. And opinions of immigrants as people are much improved in recent years despite the problem of the border. In his immigration proposals, President Bush said he was appealing to the rational middle. In this, as in potentially other issues, he has good-sized audience.