Tuesday’s elections should prompt considerable soul searching in the Republican Party. Despite expressions of confidence about unseating Obama, the President brushed Romney’s challenge aside easily and the GOP went backwards in the Senate. As the Washington Post put it, the Republicans suffered “an across the board beating from the Presidential level on down.” The old electoral coalition, which elevated Reagan and the two Bushes to the Presidency, is breaking down in a mix of demographic shifts and changing social attitudes. If the Republicans don’t adopt a broader offering, they risk becoming an oppositional party in Presidential elections.
One stark fact illustrates their difficulties. This year, Romney beat Obama by 20 per cent amongst white voters, but the President still won the electoral college convincingly. In 1988, Dukakis was beaten by 19 per cent amongst white voters and was hammered by Bush Snr 426 to 111. In other demographic groups, the Republicans have fallen badly behind. Obama won 93 per cent of the African American vote and 71 per cent of the Latino vote (compared to 67 per cent four years ago). In essence, the Republicans have gone backwards amongst a key and expanding section of the population.
Romney was also badly beaten amongst younger voters – with Obama winning 60 per cent of 18-29 year olds (who make up 19 per cent of the electorate) and 52 per cent of 30-44 year olds (27 per cent of the electorate). Younger voters, long regarded as apathetic and not worth targeting, turned out in droves. This could well be connected to the fact that the socially conservative ‘firewall’, which helped Bush win in 2004 has all but broken down.
Whereas Bush used gay marriage to energise his base in 2004, a majority of Americans, including a majority in a number of swing states, now support equal marriage, which was passed in referenda in Maryland, Washington and Maine on Tuesday night. A recent poll also found that only 20 per cent of Americans believe that abortion should not be permitted. Whereas social conservatism was once a strength for Republicans, it now reinforces negatives about the party. Put simply, what motivates the Republican base either isn’t an issue for independent voters or actively turns them off.
The GOP could take completely the wrong message from this election. They could blame their defeat on the selection of a ‘moderate’ candidate in Mitt Romney and their message not being ‘conservative’ enough – or they could think seriously about why younger Americans, Hispanics and black Americans don’t feel engaged or inspired by the party. Republicans should use this defeat as a warning sign that they need to broaden their offering and appeal to those voters who have clearly turned their back on them in recent years.
A narrow social conservatism and dogmatic trickledown isn’t going to be enough. Social conservatism no longer reflects the mood of the nation and the suggestion that Romney’s priority in the campaign was lowering taxes on rich “wealth creators” was a constant handicap throughout the campaign. While the Republican primaries involved potential candidates bartering with each other about deregulation and social conservatism they managed to move further away from large numbers of voters who would decide the election in order to appeal to their base.
Nowhere in the campaign did Romney seriously articulate an offer for poorer Americans, the ‘middle class’, younger voters or the growing number of non white voters. If the Republicans are serious about appealing to these voters, they have to extend their economic thinking beyond deregulation and trickle down and make clear how their economic plans will benefit the majority and show compassion for the poor. When only 19% of respondents believed that the Republican candidate “cares about people like me”, the challenge for the Republicans in adopting a blue collar message are pretty clear.
At the same time, Republicans need to consider whether their absolutist views on social issues, such as abortion and equal marriage, are acting as significant barriers to younger voters and college educated voters even listening to the Republican message. The GOP might be well served in listening to the advice of people like David Brooks, who suggest that equal marriage is more of a conservative than a liberal cause, rather than indulging in the hyperbole of recent years.
Put simply, Republicans are still depending on an electoral coalition that is shrinking – that became clear with once solidly red states like Colorado and Virginia, symbols of changes in demography, remaining in the Democrat camp and younger voters coming out in greater numbers than ever before. Just as the Tory Party needs to shed its ‘party of the rich’ and broaden its appeal, the Republicans also need the reach beyond their traditional base. To recover their electoral verve, the GOP needs to develop a more inclusive, broader and positive offering that appeals to a wider electorate and chimes with everyday concerns.