My sincerity in presenting this essay may be in question, since most of what I write could be seen as liberal, and I won't deny that my preferences lie with the Democratic Party. However, I also believe that we need (at least) two political parties that can meaningfully compete, and I think political discourse will be more productive when there are (at least) two parties that are competitive in both ideas and elections. Also, I found this a challenging mental exercise. But the reader can doubt me if they wish: this may simply be a disguised way of insulting the Republican Party and its diminishing chances for electoral success. Even if my intentions are not sincere, what I write may happen to be true.
It is currently the end of 2009, so 2012 is a bit far off. Even if no "major events" occur, three years is a long time in politics. Much of both parties political hopes (and many people's hopes in general) lie in the resolution of the continuing economic downturn. If the economy recovers completely or even acceptably, it will be a very hard uphill battle for the Republican Party. A faltering economy could help them, but might also lead to even more radical approaches, on the left and right.
One fact about Presidential elections in the United States is that there are no standard elections. For the 1992 US Presidential Election, Bill Clinton won a grand total of 9 electoral votes (Arkansas and the District of Columbia) by majority. This was better than Bush Sr., who won not a single state by majority. 1996 and 2000 also had significant 3rd Party candidates. To reiterate the unusual nature of the 2000 election is probably unnecessary. The 2008 election was unusual for a number of reasons, quite apart from Barack Obama's race. 2008 was the first time that two sitting US senators ran against each other, and the first time since the 1952 election when neither candidate the current President or Vice-President. So the data set of elections is not large enough for us to make generalizations. It is also heavily dependent on what is considered the "recent" elections. I believe that the 1992 election, which saw the emergence of the Democrats as the "coastal" party, defines the modern era of elections. However, if I were to include the 1988 and 1984 elections, I would be looking at quite a different data set!
With those caveats in mind, I am going to define the Republican Party's challenges in three areas: electoral, demographic and policy. These three areas interlock, and have interlocking solutions.
- Electoral: since the 1992 elections, there are a total of 18 states that have gone Democratic in every election. These states are
- New Jersey
- New York
- Rhode Island
- Washington, DC
These states total 238 electoral votes, which is very close to the 270 needed to win the electoral college. Of course, not every state in this list has been a landslide
, and many only slipped through with pluralities, but they still have ended up as 238 reliable electoral votes in every election.
On the other hand, the Republicans have won the following states every election since 1992:
- North Dakota
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
These states form the Republican's base of reliability, but they only total 91 electoral votes. This list is a little bit biased, since there are a number of states (Arizona
) that only voted for Democratic candidates once or twice under unusual circumstances. Of course, the problem with this argument is that there are quite a few states (New Hampshire
, New Mexico
) that only went Republican under similar unusual circumstances. In other words, the Republicans have a large hole to dig out of, due in part to the imbalances present in the electoral college. Although the electoral college benefits the Republicans in some ways, since it grants more power to smaller states, it also drowns out Republican votes in states such as California, Pennsylvania and Michigan. If those states had the system of splitting electoral votes that Nebraska
had, the Democrats would find their job much more challenging.
My first prediction is that the 2012 election will probably not see any of these "base" states change columns, although some will be close enough to be challenged. The Republican Party will have to look to its 2012 victory without any of the Democratic Party's 238 "guaranteed" votes. However, even though the Republican Party might not be able to win in those states, it can't concede them. The Republican Party can't permanently concede California, New York, Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania. For short term tactical and strategic reasons, it has to run a campaign that can at least imagine winning these five gigantic states. Of course, this is easier said than done, and one of the ways the Republican Party can transcend this problem will be covered in the next section:
Demographics. This is one of the areas where self-deception and misunderstanding are hurting the Republican party the most. Although I am not sure it is a universal belief, many Republicans seem to believe that Obama's victory was a result of him appealing to urban blacks merely on his race, and appealing to stereotypical Latte Liberals based on his trendiness. There is a truth to this, but the truth is a bit more complicated and dire than the stereotypes. In my mind, Obama's coalition consisted of two groups: Establishment Leftists, who tend to be urban, well-educated and often middle-class (and some of whom probably drink Lattes and drive Priuses), and Populist Leftists, who are often African-American, (or other minorities), or just people that have some type of opposition (sometimes well thought-out, sometimes not) to what they perceive as the American power structure. Some Populist Leftists could become Populist Conservatives given the right issue, and vice-versa. It is this coalition that allowed Obama to win by large margins in Baltimore City, Maryland, a poor, urban area; and also in Pitkin County, Colorado, the county where Aspen, Colorado is, and a county with a large number of affluent, educated people. Obama managing to gather this coalition with such enthusiasm may be a one time thing, but it is a coalition that is also basic to many Democratic policies and politics.
In my mind, the Republicans major attempt to stop this coalition is to harness Conservative Populism, an attempt that I think will be unsuccessful. I believe that Republicans honestly believe that there is a groundswell of "just plain folks" that are fundamentally conservative and who will rise up to join them once they are freed from the elitist media, etcetera. In my mind, this is an illusion, an illusion caused by a nostalgia filter and by looking at maps. Looking at a map of the United States, someone might think that the solid voting bloc of the prarie and Mountain States speaks of some deep conservative urge in people's hearts. The problem is, if you take the combined margins that McCain had in North and South Dakota, in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, it adds up to about the same margin of victory that Obama got in Los Angeles County. There are many Conservative Populists out there, indeed, but there are probably many more Leftist Populists in the big urban areas of America. Also, for that matter, in the smaller urban areas of America. One of the biggest signs of disconnect I have seen recently is a comment about the people who buy Sarah Palin's book: the type of people who "shop at J.C. Penney and Wal-Mart". There is also a lot of people who work at retail jobs, and while they may not be card-carrying socialists, they probably have more than a little bit of discontent at the way corporate America works. The Republican Party seems to be assuming that the tide of Conservative Populism is much bigger than it is, while ignoring the glaring signs of how many Americans are populist-leaning on the other side.
An even larger problem with the Republican Party is the outgoing flow of "Establishment Conservatives". While the Democratic Party's educated, urban voters can be chided for their choice in hot beverages, it would make much more sense to court them. Although there are many ways to measure education, some of the measures of education should be very depressing for Republicans. Of the 20 states with the highest percentage of people with graduate degrees, the top 18 voted for Obama. Highly-educated people shouldn't be derided, they should be sought-after. These people are more likely to vote, and also hold positions of influence in communities. The Republican Party should not rely on what they think of as a "silent majority" of Conservative Populist support. They should instead try to impress urban, educated people. Or, at the very least, suburban, educated people. And the way to do this is not (necessarily) to change their positions. It is simply to explain their positions in a thoughtful, articulate way. When you are dealing with people who have college degrees, or graduate degrees, the type of rhetoric and glib cliches that would get a community college persuasive writing paper graded "C-" won't get you very far.
This also leads back to the Electoral problem. If the Republican Party wishes to run a race that can be competitive in states like New York, Illinois and California, they have to find a candidate who can engage and persuade educated people. I don't believe that they have to change their beliefs to do so. Every plank in the Republican Party platform, from abortion, to national defense, to taxation and healthcare can be explained in a way that is much more literate and persuasive than it currently is. While some might say that 2012 is too soon for the Republican Party to turn around their image, I don't believe that it is impossible.
Policies: If Republicans manage to get into power, they need to have policies that will keep them there. One of the biggest Republican problems is also one of the biggest Democratic problems: Americans are center-right when it comes to taxation, but center-left when it comes to spending. Most Americans seem to have a nostalgic desire for self-reliance, and would desire a "smaller government", but when it comes to the specifics of what programs to cut, people's sense of compassion and entitlement kick in. Medicare and Medicaid are the third rail of American politics, and the National Security budget, whether in Defense or in Homeland Security, State, Justice or many other departments, is also untouchable. If Republicans main policy drive is smaller government, they need to have:
- The will to undergo temporary political setbacks (Such as losing votes in agricultural states when subsidies are cut.)
- The negotiating and expository powers to explain why the popular programs they are cutting are necessary sacrifices. (Such as explaining why cuts in student loans would actually help control the inflationary nature of higher education.
- The intelligence and innovation to cut wasteful spending, without too adversely effecting existing programs. (Such as having some of those student loan programs moved to a state level).
Notice that these policy guidelines lead back to the second point, and thus the first ones. When the Republican Party can intelligently explain how these policies will actually work, they will be able to make inroads into the educated people who make up the voting base of the key large coastal states that are necessary for electoral success.
Much of this is a tall order for three years in the future. It leaves many problems unsolved, such as the fact that there are many young people and minorities that view the Republican Party with an illogical distaste. However, I believe that given the right candidate, and the desire to speak to all Americans, the Republican Party could win the 2012 election.