My friend Eric Ostermeier at the University of Minnesota has been parsing 160 polls taken recently in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, and found a surprising result. Despite having elected Barack Obama by wide margins in most of the states, voters in the region have become more conservative over the past two years. Self-identifying conservatives have reached their highest levels in at least four years (via Mitch Berg):
In 2006, the percentage of Minnesotans identifying as conservatives plunged 5.3 points (15.9 percent) to just 28.1 percent of Gopher State residents. Self-identified conservatives in Iowa also declined by 5.1 points (13.9 percent) to 31.5 percent that year, with the largest drop occurring in Wisconsin, with a 6.1-point decline (16.9 percent) to 29.9 percent. In that November’s election cycle, Republicans lost control of the Minnesota House, the Iowa House, the Wisconsin Senate, as well as three U.S. House seats (MN-01, IA-01, WI-08).
The percentage of residents identifying as conservatives declined again in 2007, by 1.6 points in Minnesota (to 26.5 percent), by 3.0 points in Iowa (to 28.5 percent), and by 2.2 points in Wisconsin (to 27.7 percent).
However, during the last two years, conservatism seems to be mounting a comeback in the Upper Midwest, even though the 2008 election cycle saw Republicans lose control of the Wisconsin Assembly, and lose additional seats in the Minnesota House, Minnesota Senate, Iowa House, and Iowa Senate.
In Minnesota, those Gopher State residents identifying as conservative increased by 1.3 points in 2008 (to 27.8 percent) and by another 1.2 points to 29.0 percent in an aggregation of polling data through the first five months of 2009. This marks the largest percentage of Minnesotans viewing themselves as conservative since 2005.
In Iowa and Wisconsin, the conservative resurgence has been even more pronounced.
Obviously, that didn’t help much in 2008, but part of the answer for that may be in the candidates fielded by the Republicans. John McCain did not identify with the conservative wing of the party at all until he needed them in 2008, for instance, although McCain has been a fiscal conservative during his Senate career. The GOP for the most part moved away from conservative principles in order to seem more moderate to voters, and got rewarded with a shellacking.
This could also explain one Congressional victory for MN Republicans. We heard a great deal about how MN-03 was a transitional district, and that Eric Paulsen was too conservative to win with its voters. Instead, Paulsen cruised to an easy victory despite his unapologetic embrace of conservative principles, especially on fiscal policy.
Barack Obama’s aggressively statist policies will likely accelerate this reaction, especially if the American economy continues to shrink. Ostermeier’s data suggests that the way forward for Republicans isn’t to find people who will meekly acquiesce to Obama’s fiscal policies, but to find candidates willing and able to express and defend conservative principles. If every action produces an equal and opposite reaction, Obama’s radical restructuring of the American economy gives conservatives a great opportunity to take seats in Congress at the midterms.