They were the defectors of the late 20th century who twice swept Ronald Reagan into office in landside proportions: ethnic working-class Northerners, typically Catholic with traditional values and populist tendencies.
Nearly 30 years after they first split from their party, Reagan Democrats are once again at the epicenter of an election cycle.
These invisible-majority Americans left their natural base in the 1980 presidential election because their party was no longer their champion. Thanks to a sour economy, weak national security, and political pressure groups that hijacked the Democrats’ agenda, they jumped ship in favor of Reagan.
Since then, these habitual ticket-splitters have largely been ignored by their party of birth.
Until now, that is.
Hillary Clinton’s brilliant pitch to the right in the New Hampshire primary debate last week left no doubt.
“She scared me because I thought that she did so well,” said Charlie Gerow, GOP political strategist, uber conservative and former Reagan campaign staffer. “I was sitting there watching this thing, and I thought, ‘Geez, there must be something wrong with me – I agree with Hillary Clinton.’ ”
Democrat strategist Steve McMahon of McMahon, Squire and Lapp knows these voters are electoral red meat, and “the key to electoral success in national elections.”
“When Hillary said abortion should be ‘safe, legal and rare,’ and makes a big point about how ‘rare’ is an important as ‘safe’ and ‘legal,’ she is talking to the Reagan Democrats,” said McMahon.
The Democrat Party defines Reagan Democrats as values-voters – people who vote more on the basis of their values and shared values than they do on the basis of issues. Many of those values are impact or religious values.
In 2005, Howard Dean was the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee and saddled with a party weakened after years of national losses. Determined to turn the tide, he commissioned a massive poll with Cornell Belcher aimed directly at those values-voters.
After pouring over the polling data, Dean recognized a couple of things:
- First, Democrats did not speak about their faith – but they should.
- Second, that when Democrats talked about abortion, they didn’t emphasize that it should be a last resort, and that while Democrats needed to protect the right of women to make their own decisions, they also needed to talk about taking care of every child brought into the world – an aspect on which Republicans are perceived to fall off.
Dean took his poll around to the party’s leadership and to labor leaders. He pointed out that while swing voters do share Democrats’ values, the party was not speaking to them in the right way.
Dean’s mission became to link things in a way that makes it more difficult for cultural conservatives to walk away from Democrats.
The challenge for both parties is very similar to some degree: control of the primaries by the parties’ extremes. For Democrats, it is their bloggers who want out of Iraq tomorrow; for Republicans, it is the extreme pro-lifers.
If Republicans want to win, they should remember that Reagan, as president, never let the abortion issue define what it meant to be a Republican. He was against it, but he never took steps to make it harder to obtain; he never lifted a finger to outlaw abortion. His lasting legacy on the issue was Sandra Day O’Connor’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, a justice who never sought to overturn Roe v. Wade.
The more each party must run to its corners and defend what mainstream America considers extreme positions, the harder it becomes to win over Reagan Democrats.
Republicans need to give them a reason to vote for them and against Democrats.
Democrats just need to give them a reason to vote for them.