Righting the Republican Ship
Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Dec 9, 2008
Over the past two elections, a tsunami has washed Republicans from power. For the first time since the Great Depression, the GOP lost double digit seats in congress in two consecutive elections. Overall, Republicans lost the presidency, 12 Senate seats, 56 House seats, and 7 governorships while their parity in partisan identification in the 1990s has become a 7% Democratic advantage today.
Many Republicans expect that Bush’s departure from politics combined with a return to conservative principles of small government and low taxes will lead to smoother electoral waters. However, the problems the GOP faces today reflect trends that predate Bush. Over the past 20 years, the Republican Party has become older, more rural, more white, and more Southern while the country is becoming more urban and multicultural. If Republicans want to return to power, they must steer the party in a more inclusive direction while applying conservative principles to pressing issues.
First, the GOP is graying while young voters are more Democratic and more liberal. John McCain only won voters aged 65 or older. However, exit polls show young people 18-29 preferred Obama over McCain 66%-32%. Furthermore, young voters claim Democratic party identification over Republican identification 45%-26%, which continues a trend over the past 15 years. Moreover, young people are more liberal, more supportive of government problem solving, more tolerant, and pro-environment and this poses additional problems. These generational differences will provide an advantage to Democrats in the future.
Second, the GOP is becoming more rural. Over the past ten years, Republicans have kept their advantage in rural areas while Democrats receive about 60% of the urban vote and the suburbs have changed from Republican to a slight Democratic advantage. Today, Republicans hold only a few urban congressional seats and are losing suburban congressional seats.
And the suburbs that Republicans are losing or have lost are not just in the Northeast but Northern Virginia, Phoenix, Denver, Orange County, Chicago, Detroit, and Atlanta. The suburbs and the professionals who occupy them are becoming more concerned about quality of life issues like transportation, education, and health care.
For these voters, tax cuts do not unclog roads, improve public education, and provide health care. To reclaim these voters, Republicans must apply conservative principles to these policies by building roads, focusing on school management reforms, and promoting market based policies that lower health care costs and expand accessibility.
Third, the GOP is white in a multicultural nation. While whites currently compose approximately 70% of the public, their proportion of the population is decreasing. This makes it more important for Republicans to appeal to minorities. Yet, 95% of blacks, 67% of Latinos, and 62% of Asians voted Democratic in 2008. Especially disheartening for Republicans is that Bush received 44% of the Latino vote in 2004, and Latinos were key in swinging Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada to Democrats.
However, the social conservatism and desire for economic advancement make Latinos, African-Americans, and Asians a natural fit with Republicans. To build a multi-racial coalition, Republicans must drop their jingoistic immigration rhetoric, promote more rational immigration policies, recruit more minorities to run for office, and actively sell their policies in these communities.
Fourth, the base of the GOP has moved South. The South voted for McCain 54%-45% and Republicans took 55% of Southern congressional seats while the Midwest, West, and Northeast voted for Obama and congressional Democrats in large numbers. In fact, New England, the historical home of the GOP, elected no Republicans to the House in 2008.
The Southern flavor of the GOP and its emphasis on social and economic conservatism is a hard sell in the Midwest and Northeast which is losing manufacturing jobs to globalization. To be competitive, Republicans should reprioritize their issues and emphasize economic policies without slighting social conservatism.
In the coming years, many Republicans will be tempted to wait for Democrats to make mistakes and let the partisan tide return and lift their electoral boat. However, the electoral tide is not predictable. Republicans should change course and seek deeper water.
Orignally published in the Jackson Sun on Decemeber 5, 2008