The Republicans’ deep, deep hole
Reporting from deep red South Carolina the day after the election, Anne Hull of the Washington Post wrote: “On the road, cars still had South Carolina license tags that said ‘In God We Trust.’ The utility pole on U.S. 29 was still tacked with the ‘Jesus Saves’ sign. ... The textile mills were still empty, and dogs still barked at the ends of their chains. ... But everything was different.”
In so many respects -- culturally, ethnically, sociologically, internationally -- the election of Barack Obama has altered the landscape. It also has changed the political terrain, making the path for Republicans to return to majority status in the electorate daunting -- an uphill climb akin to scaling Mt. Everest. Without pitons.
The geographic coalition Obama was able to craft is certainly exhilarating for Democrats. He held every state John Kerry captured in 2004 and added a slew of states that had seemed out of reach. That gave a kick to congressional Democrats as well. With some races still undecided, they will pick up 20 or more seats in the House and seven or more in the Senate, coming on top of seats won in 2006. It is exceedingly rare for a party to make back-to-back gains of this magnitude. (We’d have to go back to the 1950s for a comparable swing.)
In the most immediate analysis, this election marked the combination of Obama’s appealing persona with a national paroxysm of desire to turn the page totally on the Bush years. But long term, the results signal political shifts that have to be sobering, even chilling, for Republican partisans looking to a brighter day.
First, Obama’s electoral coalition suggests deep fissures in the geographical base of the GOP. Since the 1960s, Republicans have been able to count on solid support from the South and the Rocky Mountain West, along with significant footholds in the Upper Midwest and New England. Obama’s victories in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida show that the solid South is now more liquid. In the West, the Obama victories in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, along with a robust showing in Montana, are bitter reversals for Republican fortunes. Add Obama’s ability to win handily in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the virtual disappearance of the GOP in New England (with the defeat of Connecticut Rep. Chris Shays, there is no longer a single Republican lawmaker from a region that was once a GOP bastion), and it is not clear there is any enduring regional base for the party anymore.
At the same time, Republicans have seen serious erosion in America’s suburbs. Suburban voters gave 61% of their votes to the GOP in 1984 and 57% in 1988, but that dropped to 52% by 2004. This time, they fell to 48%, while Obama captured a majority. For the GOP, its base has been reduced to small-town and rural voters, not exactly a growth strategy.
Even more disturbing for Republicans is the change reflected in demographics. Minority voters are growing steadily as a share of the population and of voters. In 2004, whites made up 79% of U.S. voters; they were down to 75% this year. Blacks, Latinos and Asians, meantime, went from 20% to 23%. Blacks voted 95% for Obama; Latinos gave him 66% support; and Asians, 61%. Whatever advances the Bush team made by wooing black churches and socially conservative Latinos during the last eight years seemed to evaporate. If the Republican Party cannot make significant, lasting inroads into these minority voting populations, it has a long-term disaster on its hands.
Most ominous for the GOP is what has been happening with younger voters. As a share of the electorate, 18- to 29-year-olds grew only slightly, from 17% to 18%. But they grew in terms of numbers of voters by more than 2.2 million (perhaps up to 4.5 million) and gave 66% of their votes to Obama. Partisan identity tends to crystallize in this age range. If Obama succeeds over the next four or eight years, these voters may carry their Democratic identity through their lifetimes. For Republicans, the danger is that their only reliable voting bloc may remain older white guys. Make that older Protestant white guys. Ouch.
John McCain loves to remark that “it is always darkest before it’s totally black.” And the GOP might share that sentiment now. But it can be true that it is darkest before the dawn. When Barry Goldwater got stomped by LBJ in 1964, with Democrats sweeping to swollen majorities in Congress, newspapers and analysts all over the country wrote about the impending death of the GOP. Four years later, the party captured the White House, ushering in an era in which it won seven of 10 presidential elections.
A backlash against the Vietnam War and a fracture in Democratic ranks over civil rights in 1968 led to victory for Richard Nixon, and the Republicans reclaimed five Senate seats. Republicans could come back if Obama and his congressional Democrats fall apart or simply cannot deliver stability during these tumultuous times. They won’t reemerge, however, if the lesson they take from 2008 is to shed moderates and move even more sharply right, or if they just hope for more bad times.
Republicans need to be more than just the only other option on the ballot in four years. They must find a message -- be it a more refined compassionate conservativism, the folksy populism of Mike Huckabee or even a fiscally conservative/environmentally conservationist fusion -- that speaks to the segments of the electorate that are growing. And then they need a leader to deliver it. At this early date after a dramatic election, there is no sign they have either.