In 2008, the Republicans lost the White House in what many pundits leading to the election described as nothing less than an electoral holocaust and demographic debacle. After thoroughly analyzing the exit polling data, I have a far different perspective that stands as a guide for the Republicans going forward. First, we were told that younger voters- those 18-24 or first time voters- would play an important role. Although their overall numbers were up from previous elections, they were not great enough to tip the election one way or another. Once again, they proved that video and/or drinking games and blogging in dorm rooms is apparently more important than actually exercising their franchise. Secondly, we were told also that the Hispanic vote would prove critical. Again, this prediction is not borne out by the data. While they are the largest growing segment of the population, they by no means represent some great voting bloc. In 2004, Bush won the Hispanic vote. If McCain had merely replicated Bush in that regards, he would have still lost. Conversely, had Obama won 90% of the Hispanic vote in Texas, a state with many Hispanics (he won 63%), he still would have lost the state. In short, Republicans learned they don’t necessarily need the Hispanic vote.
But, the most disturbing outcome of the election polling data is the fact that nationally, Obama won the vote of those making more than $200,000 per year. It was not by much, but it certainly reversed the trend among these voters. Could it be that the wealthy were becoming Democratic? It defies commonsense, especially since those making greater than $250,000 were specifically targeted at every campaign stop, they were portrayed as the bad guy, told that the wealth would be “redistributed,” and that it would be patriotic of them to pay higher taxes. The problem lies not so much with their perceived acceptance of Democratic dogma, but with the Republican Party itself.
There are two factions within the Republican Party- the social conservatives and the fiscal conservatives. Increasingly, the fiscal conservatives are breaking ranks with the social conservatives. This has to be placed upon the background of the Bush Administration which engaged in a costly war in Iraq, who failed to veto any spending bill sent his way for seven years, who expanded entitlements under his Medicare program, who bungled the greatest natural disaster in US history and resided over one of the greatest financial collapses since the Great Depression. Hence, one can see the ire of the fiscal conservatives within the party. But, when all is said and done, do they really like Obama? Do they really embrace Democratic Party dogma regarding spending and taxation? This was less an embrace of that idealogy and more a reaction against the apparent highjacking of the Party by the social conservatives. Among those making greater than $200,000 per year, McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as Vice President, was a greater deciding factor in voting against him than among other groups. The reason is not that they disliked Palin per se, but that they disliked her staunch social conservative stands. It appeared as if there was pandering to this group of conservatives by McCain. I am not suggesting that Palin cost McCain the election, only that Palin turned off many fiscal conservatives despite her stands in fiscal matters.
When discussing the social conservatives, you need to also discuss the evangelical and/or born again wing of the party. There is this mythical belief that they are some monolithic voting bloc with designs on American government. Believed to number between 8-10 million voters, evangelicals are, in fact, more liberal in certain areas than their fundamentalist Christian counterparts who many mistakenly lump into the same group. In 1996, Bill Clinton won the evangelical vote 55-45% over Bob Dole. Bush reversed that trend in both 2000 and 2004 winning that vote 55-45%, or about a 1million vote swing nationally. Some have stated that Bush won Florida because of the evangelical turnout in Florida in 2000. However, evangelical voter turnout was only 56%- slightly above the national average. Again in 2004, evangelicals were mistakenly credited with Bush winning Ohio. However, Ohio’s voter turn out was increased among conservatives in general not because of an evangelical embrace of Bush, but because of a gay marriage ban qquestion on the ballot engineered by Rove. The guerilla strategy worked, but just barely so. Bush’s victory in Ohio was razor thin nad considerably less than Clinton’s margins of victory in 1992 and 1996 in Ohio.
By way of analogy, look at the Catholic vote. Given the records of Obama and McCain regarding abortion, one would expect Catholics to vote overwhelmingly for McCain. And although they did, nationally, favor McCain over Obama, the support was hardly “overwhelming.” This theory that the way to the Catholic vote is through a staunch pro-life stance is not necessarily true. Poll findings by the Pew Research Group found that among Catholics who find abortion to be a major topic among political candidates, they also tend to be liberal in other areas. For example, the majority favor gun control and gay rights, are less accepting of the death penalty and, in fact, rate health care as their number one concern. A significant portion also support the concept of socialized medicine. All of these are hardly conservative stances.
Just as political stratgists get it wrong with the Catholic vote, they are also getting it wrong with the over-reliance on the evangelical vote and their mistaken belief that they are necessary to electoral victory. In very close elections nationally, they could potentially be the game changer, but they are certainly not the monolithic voting bloc they are portrayed to be. As way of comparison, it is ironic that the greatest decrease in the number of abortions in America occurred under a Democratic president- Bill Clinton. The greatest defense against a national gay marriage right was the Defense of Marriage Act signed into law by a Democratic president- Bill Clinton. The greatest movement of people off welfare rolls occurred under a Democratic president- Bill Clinton. Yet you will invariably see and hear a Republican vehemently railing against abortion, gay marriage, and welfare.
If you go further back to the Republican primaries and look at the exit polling data, you see that Ron Paul did exceptionally well among those making greater than $200,000 per year. Why? He consistently held out the philosophy of lower taxes (in fact, he advocated elimination of the income tax altogether). McCain on the other hand came off more like a third-party populist which he tried to rename “maverick.”
Facing reality, issues like abortion and gay marriage will intimately touch the lives of a minority of Americans. Issues like the affordability of health insurance, putting your kid through college, receiving a decent education, protection of your savings and your retirement funds and keeping a roof over your family’s head affect all Americans everyday. That is why Republican pundits have said that they need to get back to the basic philosophy of their party- the party of low taxes for all and smaller government. The Party needs to concentrate on economics and everything that falls under that umbrella- energy independence and not just “drill, baby, drill,” health care reform, market accountability and transparency to ensure truly free markets, immigration reform and government reform, specifically smaller government.
Near the end of the 2008 campaign, Obama ran numerous advertisements stating that the Republicans wanted to give oil companies $4 billion in tax breaks. What I never saw was a Republican advertisement that said: “That’s right! $4 billion for the oil companies and $4 billion for telecommunications and $4 billion for internet companies. In fact, I want to give across the board tax cuts to all businesses and if they happen to be an oil company, then so be it?” Instead, we got McCain rolling over like a dog and intimating that oil company profits were “obscene.” This is not the Republican Party I grew up with. As these pundits have stated, the Republican Party needs to be the Party of economic principles and stop pandering to the select few social conservatives. They need to address the issues that affect ALL Americans, not just the voting bloc they incorrectly perceive as being their gravy train to the White House.
One final word as the Party attempts to move forward. Although there is no need to adopt some de facto membership affirmative action program, expanding the base through a sound and principled economic message is important. The Party needs to be more inclusive, especially since they are perceived as something less. There are fiscally conservative blacks and Hispanics and women and, yes, gays out there. Grassroot recruitment efforts, especially in urban areas, will yield results. The party needs to bring that rural attitude to the big city. The economic message will resonate with most Americans- black, white, Hispanic, young and old, veteran or not, regardless of religion or income level, or sexual orientation. There is little doubt that in the short term this will offend some, like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter and such. But, consider the alternative. This is not a call for the Republican Party to change, but to re-evaluate and get back to its roots. It is, to paraphrase Ron Paul, a call to return to Republican values and stick to them. Fortunately, the face of the Democratic Party- Barack Obama- is as unprincipled as the Republicans are perceived to be. Winning in 2010 or 2012 is less of a challenge and more an opportunity for the Republican Party and the American people.