New polling brings good news and bad news for beleaguered Republicans yearning for a comeback in the Age of Obama.
The encouraging message suggests that Americans strongly prefer conservative policies and values to the liberal approaches preached by the president. On the other hand, the same polls indicate that the two revival strategies most commonly discussed by the GOP will both lead to political dead ends. Neither a shift to more moderate positions nor an emphasis on rousing, uncompromising, us-vs.-them right wing rhetoric will bring Republicans back to power in Washington D.C. The only workable strategy for long-term GOP gains requires a combination of conservative substance and more moderate tone.
First, the good news for endangered elephants: a recent Gallup Poll (August 14) shows that in nearly all 50 states more people identify themselves as conservative than liberal. As the Gallup organization concluded (based on a total of 160,000 interviews with U.S. adults during the first half of 2009): “Conservatives outnumber liberals by statistically significant margins in 47 out of the 50 states, with the two groups statistically tied in Hawaii, Vermont and Massachusetts.” Even in Massachusetts, the most liberal state in the union according to the polling, only 29% associated themselves with the label worn so proudly by their late Senator Ted Kennedy. By contrast, in the most conservative states (Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Utah, South Carolina) more than 45% defined themselves as “very conservative” or “conservative.”
Nationwide, the preference for the conservative brand persists, even in the midst of Democratic triumphs at the ballot box. In the election of 2008, with Barack Obama winning a convincing margin of nearly 7% of the popular vote, exit polling actually showed a landslide victory of 12% for self-identified conservatives over liberals who showed up to vote (34% to 22%). If anything, the ideological rightward tilt has intensified since the election, with steadily increasing numbers for those Americans who describe themselves as “pro life” or opponents of “big government” and deficit spending. In this context, it’s no surprise that the most “progressive” elements of President Obama’s health care reform have run into stubborn and mounting opposition.
Obviously, the clearly expressed ideological preferences of the American public offer powerful opportunities to battered Republicans to recoup their losses and restore their fortunes but the bad news from the pollsters invalidates the two most frequently mentioned strategies for achieving that renewal.
First, there’s no evidence at all that it would help the GOP to moderate its positions on issues or in any way turn away from the conservative label, as suggested by numerous moderate Republican leaders (former Governor Christie Todd Whitman of New Jersey, Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Senator Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania –before he switched to the Democrats) . The numbers show, in fact, that conservatism remains vastly more popular than Republicanism. As Gallup reports: “While voters in all 50 states are, to some degree, more conservative than liberal (with the conservative advantage ranging from 1 to 34 points), Gallup’s 2009 party ID results indicate that Democrats have significant party ID advantages in 30 states and Republicans in only 4.” Three crucial swing states (Ohio, Indiana and North Carolina--all carried by Barack Obama) highlight the problem for the GOP. In all three states, conservatives decisively outnumber liberals (by margins of 21, 21 and 20%, respectively) while Democrats clearly outnumber Republicans (by 14, 10 and 12%). To renew the party in these must-win GOP states and around the country, the Republicans need to identify themselves more clearly with conservative positions and values, not less so.
This recognition leads to the other commonly expressed formula for reviving the Republican Party: a new emphasis on tough-minded, unwavering, hyper-partisan, take-no-prisoners affirmations of the party’s unequivocal right wing orientation. According to nearly all my talk radio colleagues (led, as always, by the great Rush Limbaugh), this sort of full-throated call to arms would mobilize the party’s base and bring victory by appealing to the nation’s permanent conservative majority.
Unfortunately, that much-heralded majority doesn’t exist – not even in the most reliably conservative states. According to Gallup’s 50 state survey, Alabama and Mississippi – the two states with the highest percentage of self-described conservatives – still show conservative identification just under 50%. In other words, even in the most right-leaning states in the union, even assuming the impossible goal of persuading every single conservative to vote Republican, the GOP would still need some moderate support to win.
Nationwide, the importance of moderates is even more apparent: yes, conservatives greatly outnumbered liberals in the election of 2008, but the number of self-described “moderates” dwarfed both the other groups (44% , compared to 34% and 22%). Moderates predominated even more conspicuously during the Bush re-election triumph of 2004 (comprising 45% of all voters). Commentators who suggest that John McCain lost in 2008 because conservatives stayed home should confront the actual numbers: 34% of voters called themselves “conservative” in both the Bush victory of 2004 and the McCain loss of 2008. Since the percentage of eligible voters who turned out remained virtually identical in the two elections (despite the discredited myth of a huge surge in participation to support Obama) there is no evidence whatever that dispirited conservatives stayed home.
The votes of moderates for Obama turned the election in his favor, not conservative disillusionment with McCain. Bush won the election in 2004, despite losing self-described moderates by 9%. McCain, however, couldn’t possibly win after losing moderates by a crushing 21% margin. Even if he had won every conservative vote cast for George W. Bush, he still would have lost the election decisively.
On the surface, the landslide for Obama-Biden among moderates makes no sense, since as a Senator from Illinois, he compiled the most liberal voting record in the Senate while John McCain earned a long-standing reputation as one of the more moderate Senators in the GOP. In the course of his brief career, Barack Obama did nothing to displease his party’s left wing while McCain’s battles with the Republican right wing (on campaign finance reform, immigration and much more) made him anathema to some of the GOP’s most militant members.
Why, then, did the decisive block of moderate voters prefer Barack Obama in such overwhelming numbers? The answer involves his moderate tone, not the ideological substance of his program. As the clear front-runner from the time he locked-up the nomination, Obama could emphasize gauzy themes of “hope” and “change” and avoid resorting to angry or negative rhetoric. McCain and Palin, on the other hand, played catch-up throughout the campaign, adopting a tone that struck the public (according to surveys) as vastly more negative than the appeals of their Democratic opponents. Attempts to raise the issue of Obama’s one-time friendship with radical Bill Ayres, or Joe the Plumber’s warnings of socialism, or efforts to raise questions about Obama’s birth certificate (which began a few months before the election), only served to make the ticket look immoderate, despite the fact that its issues positions were, if anything, more mainstream and less ideological than the Democratic platform. In other words, McCain and Palin didn’t lose moderates because of the radical substance of their campaign (no one has ever called John McCain a radical or ideologue of any kind) but because of the harsh style of their underdog campaign.
History, common sense and recent polling send a clear message regarding the two common recommendations for rebuilding the GOP. Republicans don’t need less conservatism, and they won’t benefit from a more confrontational style. They actually need more conservatism, and a less confrontational style.
They must renew the same combination that has worked for Republican winners at the national level for some thirty years. Ronald Reagan never abandoned conservative positions, but his famously genial approach to political combat won him the moderate voters he needed for two landslide victories. His gracious and generous praise even for political foes (like his eloquent tribute to John Kennedy at a fundraiser for the JFK Library in 1985) made him sound bi-partisan, even while he remained an aggressive party leader and a courageously consistent conservative.
Similarly, the George W. Bush slogan of “compassionate conservatism” (much derided on the right) allowed him to contest moderate votes with Al Gore and John Kerry and to win two hard fought victories. Though the low approval ratings that plagued Bush at the end of his term make him look like a political loser, the truth remains that his kindly, nice-guy demeanor helped achieve a brief GOP comeback at the presidential level after two solid losses to Bill Clinton. Liberal pundits regularly condemned Bush and (particularly) Cheney as leaders of “the most conservative administration in American history,” but when running for re-election they not only captured nearly all conservative votes (84%) but nearly split the overwhelming moderate vote with John Kerry.
The most important point to remember about those citizens in the political middle who seem to decide every national election is that they’re the least philosophically committed or issues-oriented voters in the electorate. Respondents often describe themselves as “moderate” because they feel uncertain of their place on the political spectrum and are less engaged with the roiling controversies of the day. Moderates famously respond to atmospherics (“hope and change” or “compassionate conservatism”) and personalities, more than they react to nine-point plans or detailed position papers. They also dislike strident, confrontational, the other-guy-is-Hitler rhetoric because such appeals seem like a rebuke to their own uncertainty.
Republicans can’t win without rallying the plurality of Americans who prefer conservatism to liberalism, but they also can’t (anywhere) with that group alone. Just like Democrats, the GOP needs moderate votes to win and the only way to get them without sacrificing principle or core conservative voters involves deploying the same combination that’s worked before: maintaining clearly conservative positions and values, but with those ideas presented in a manner that’s optimistic, amiable, reasonable and moderate.
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