Has identifying as a conservative in Oklahoma plateaued?

We continue to try and read the tealeaves from the ideological identification chart accompanying this story, and determine what it might mean to Oklahoma’s political future. So, as the chart seems to indicate, has the Republican revolution in the state run out of steam, or have Democrats stopped the bleeding and are ready for a comeback?

Oklahoma’s tsunami of Republican red may have crashed the shores in 2010, when every statewide office became Republican, but the early signs were there in the conservative identification leading up to that election. Like the coastline receding before the big wave, moderate identification retreated and conservatism surged.

Looking back, here’s what the chart also tell us. Soon after President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Oklahoma voters abandoned the brief thought of being a “moderate” once it was clear the new president wasn’t one. Conservative identification shot to 60 percent of the electorate and averaged much higher than it ever had, not going below 49 percent since 2008.

In the months leading up to the historic 2010 election, conservatism was at an all-time high, since SoonerPoll started recording it in 2004, and showing strength like it hadn’t before.

But, the months leading up to November 2012 showed the conservative movement had perhaps slowed, which may also be tied to a loss of enthusiasm for voting Republican in comparison to 2010. Republican Mitt Romney may have won Oklahoma, but the drop in enthusiasm here was part of a systematic low for Romney voters nationwide, negatively effecting turnout and costing him the national election. 

I opined about this after last year’s presidential primary, and how the more moderate Romney, if he became the eventual nominee, might be a repeat of the moderate McCain loss in 2008.

But now, the high-flying conservative plane in Oklahoma looks like it has stalled, leaving many to speculate that Republicans have reached a point of diminishing return. It could be argued the chart presents evidence that Republican control of all statewide offices and both legislative bodies is here to stay, and this is all the level of conservatives needed for Republicans to remain firmly in control. Or not?

For additional insights, we turned to Patrick B. McGuigan, editor of CapitolBeatOK and Oklahoma city bureau chief for Watchdog.org, and one of the state’s leading authorities on politics.

“The Republican ‘brand’ may have peaked,” said McGuigan, “although the party will likely continue to dominate the Legislature and most statewide races for years to come. Major problems facing the leadership include whether or not to deliver on promises to make government smaller and to lower taxes. If they cannot do this, they risk some erosion of their dominant position.”

One thing for certain: if Democrats continue to embrace the ideology of the far left and abandon the party’s conservative heritage in the state, it may be the minority party for some time to come.

“Democrats retain a plurality of Oklahoma’s registered voters, but any return to statewide strength is dependent upon restoration of the moderate-to-conservative policy approaches that characterized successful Democratic politicians of the past,” said McGuigan. “There is no guarantee this is possible because of the shift to the Left among the party’s most committed activists.”  

Some Democrat political observers believe the state’s changing demography will aid Democrats in future gains: African-Americans in Oklahoma are voting at higher levels than ever before 2008, Hispanics are the state’s fastest growing minority, and both are traditional constituencies of the Democratic party.

While Republican political observers may concede these points, they also point out it would be difficult to make out the Oklahoma Republican party as the party of “old white men,” noting the majority of women and Native American legislators in Oklahoma are Republicans, as well as the House speaker being of African-American and Native American descent.

“Still, I’d give the Democrats a shot at grabbing a statewide post of two, most likely the schools superintendent job,” McGuigan said.

Either way, Oklahoma seems to take its own sweet time with political change. The modern conservative movement, and the alignment with the Republican party, started back in the early 1970s when Republicans had just 21 seats in the 101-seat state House. To get to the 72 Republicans today, it’s taken them over 40 years.

If the Democrats are ever able to regain control, that may take its own sweet time as well.

NOTE: Bill Shapard is the founder of SoonerPoll.com and Shapard Research, a full service market research firm based in Oklahoma City. Bill also serves as an on-air political commentator for Oklahoma television stations.