The traditional Republican base is now too small—the party must forge a new oneby Peter Kellner / November 14, 2012 / Leave a comment
The Republicans found themselves on the wrong side of demography and millions of moderate voters
Barack Obama has many people to thank for his victory over Mitt Romney. They include his family, his White House and Democratic party colleagues, his financial backers and the activists in swing states who mobilised his voters. But there is someone else to whom he owes a special debt of gratitude: Rupert Murdoch. And if things stay as they are, Obama’s Democratic successors will have cause to bless Murdoch, too. You read that right. I do mean Murdoch, the creator of Fox News, the TV channel that tried to poison the minds of American voters against the president; that created a platform for Tea Party politicians; that seriously tried to persuade viewers that Obamacare was tantamount to socialist tyranny; that climate change is a myth. By extending its influence over the Republican party, it killed the party’s chances of ousting Obama.
We can see this from YouGov’s campaign polls and the exit poll conducted by Edison Research for the Associated Press and the television networks. In essence, the Republicans found themselves on the wrong side both of long-term trends in the country’s demography, and the values of tens of millions of moderate Americans. They chained themselves to the views of a shrinking minority of Americans: white voters on the conservative far right. In so doing, they alienated themselves from the very people who might otherwise have voted to get rid of Obama: people struggling to make ends meet, worried about the future and fearful that they might be unable to access good schools and healthcare for their family.
The basic numbers make this clear. White voters opted for Romney over Obama by a massive 17m margin. But non-white voters preferred Obama by an even more massive margin of 20m. In particular, the president won a higher share of the growing Hispanic vote. Compared with 2008, he won 4m fewer white votes and 2m fewer black votes—but 2m more Hispanic votes. In 2004 George W Bush won 44 per cent of the Hispanic vote. This year Romney won only 28 per cent. The Republicans must reverse this trend; otherwise future elections will be even harder to win, as the total Hispanic electorate is growing at roughly half a million a year. If the different racial groups vote in precisely the same proportions in 2016, Obama’s successor as Democratic candidate will win the electoral college by a near landslide.
A Republican party that wanted to win back Hispanic voters would, above all, abandon its hard line on immigration. It would also drop any thoughts of cutting welfare, restricting abortions and repealing Obamacare. In short, it would do the exact opposite of what the Tea Party proposes.
If demographic trends provide one stark challenge to the Republicans, underlying values across the racial spectrum provide another. America contains millions of right-wing voters, but they are still a minority. Just one-third describe themselves as “conservative” and, of these, fewer than half regard themselves as part of the Tea Party movement. It is true that only one in four Americans describe themselves as “liberal,” a label that many in the US spit out as a term of abuse. But four in ten describe themselves as “moderate” and 6m more of them voted for Obama than Romney.
Again, the polling evidence explains why. Obama’s record, much derided by his critics, helped him significantly in the two biggest swing states-—Ohio (because of federal support for car companies) and Florida (Obamacare). In contrast, parts of the Tea Party agenda alienated key voters. For example, in Ohio, two out of three voters think abortion should be allowed all or most of the time. Elsewhere, state referendums uncovered widespread support for gay marriage and legalising cannabis. An openly lesbian Democrat won the hotly contested Senate seat in Wisconsin. It’s not just that most Americans think that Fox News and the Tea Party are addressing the wrong issues—tens of millions actually disagree with what they propose.
As a result, the Republican party is becoming a tainted brand. At local level, its politicians can overcome this with personal appeal. That’s why the party has retained control of the House of Representatives. But nationally, moderate voters feel the party has become too rigid and right-wing. Recently YouGov asked Americans whether members of Congress should “stand up for their principles” or “compromise to get something done.” Conservatives divided three-to-two in favour of principle, but a large majority of moderates, like liberals, preferred compromise. What’s more, moderates blame Republicans more than Democrats for the increasing polarisation of Congress.
Why, then, are the Republicans charging down an electoral blind alley? Trotsky would have understood the process. It is a classic example of entryism. A small group captures a slightly larger organisation, and then seeks to exploit the power of that organisation to run an even larger institution. It’s what Britain’s far left tried to do in the 1980s: take over local Labour party committees, and then use the authority of those committees to control local councils. The Tea Party is, in effect, the Republicans’ Militant Tendency.
Indeed, the parallel goes further. In the 1980s, Labour not only had to fight far left lunacy; it also had to overcome adverse demographic trends. Working-class numbers were contracting, while the middle classes were growing. Class-based politics delivered occasional big victories (such as in 1945 and 1966), but were a sure route to defeat by the 1980s. By the time Labour suffered its fourth consecutive defeat in 1992, the question many asked was, can Labour ever win again?
Tony Blair delivered the answer five years later, not just through personality and political outlook. He also persuaded the party to change itself and so appeal to middle-class voters. In 2016 the Republicans will need their equivalent.
A large part of Mitt Romney’s problem is that his party denied him the chance to break out of its crumbling citadel. In himself, he is not rabidly right-wing. Indeed, he used the TV debates with some skill to present himself as a consensual leader. His trouble was that too many Americans regarded his apparent moderation as only skin-deep. They had seen him tack to the right to win his party’s nomination, then revert to the centre when he took on Obama. As a result, while most moderates thought Obama said what he believed, two-thirds of them criticised Romney for saying “what he thinks people want to hear.”
The formula for future Republican success, then, is clear. It must address the concerns of Hispanic voters on jobs, welfare and immigration, stop offending women with its opposition to abortion, cease frightening elderly voters with its threat to repeal Obamacare, and persuade moderate Americans that it is sincere in its wish to pursue bipartisan politics in Congress. Easy to state, but hard to do.