In explaining why they lost the last presidential election the easiest and silliest thing for Republicans to do would be to blame Mitt Romney. I’m not suggesting that their 2012 flag bearer was an ideal candidate (although I think he’d have been an excellent, deal-making CEO for the USA) but he actually ran ahead of some pretty big Republican Senate candidates. Although the likes of Connie Mack in Florida, George Allen in Virginia, Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, Jeff Flake in Arizona and, notably, the Tea Party darling Ted Cruz in Texas, had established local reputations: Mitt Romney outperformed them. There is a tendency to try and excuse every election defeat by pointing to special factors but the Republicans have now lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections – twice against Bill Clinton, once against Al Gore and twice against Barack Obama.
Although the Republicans are doing increasingly well in low turnout mid-term elections when the electorate is whiter, older and more Christian than in the presidential election cycle – they are looking less and less able to command majorities among the majority of Americans – and this is not a new problem. The Democrats have won more than 55 of the US Senate’s 100 seats on thirteen occasions. The Republicans have never exceeded that threshold. Not once. They’re only capable of narrow wins.
Here’s a ten point briefing on the scale of the Republican problem. I apologise if you’re Republican-inclined and it’s depressing. All I can promise is that I’ll return tomorrow with ten possible solutions.
1. Demography: When Ronald Reagan won his landslide victory against Walter Mondale in 1984 more than 85% of the US electorate was white. It was just 72% at the last election and it’ll be 69% white at the next. And Republicans are not doing well amongst the growing number of minority Americans. Barack Obama won an astonishing 93% of African-American votes and 70% of Hispanic and Asian American voters at the last election. While the problem has been exacerbated by the Obama candidacy it has deep roots. Even when it was a white Republican nominee against a white Democrat (John Kerry), George W Bush could only muster 26% of Hispanic votes in the 2004 election. The problem for the Grand OLD Party is age as well as colour. 2.75 million Romney voters are projected to have died by 2016 compared to just 2.3 million Obama voters. That’s a 435,000 advantage for the 2016 Democrat nominee before voting has even begun and we know that younger voters are more liberal, less religious and, therefore, more Democrat-inclined. New voters broke for the Democrats by two-to-one in the last two presidential elections.
2. The electoral college: As Al Gore found out in 2000 when he won 50,999,987 votes to George W Bush’s 50,456,002, winning the most votes doesn’t put you in the White House. You become president by winning the electoral college. If you win populous California, for example, you’re already a fifth of your way to getting the 270 of the necessary college votes for a victory. The sunshine state makes up nearly a fifth of the college with 55 votes. The other big states are Texas with 38 votes and Florida and New York – both with 29. The problem for the Republicans is that the Democrats are so well dug into many of the biggest states (notably California, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Washington and Massachusetts) that the Republican route to a majority is an uphill one. Myra Adams concludes that “terminally blue states” make up 91% of the electoral college (246 of the 270). Even if Romney had won the three swing states of Ohio, Florida, and Virginia in 2012 Barack Obama’s dominance across the rest of the college would have been enough for his re-election. The college is here to stay by the way. It can only be replaced by a bipartisan amendment to the US Constitution and Democrats aren’t in a hurry to change a system that favours them for most of the time.
3. Party of the rich: Just like the British Conservative Party the Republicans are seen as the party of the better off and for the better off – a problem that the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks has attempted to address in his new book, The Conservative Heart. It certainly is a major problem. A YouGovUSA survey found that 51% of Americans saw the Republicans as a party focused on helping the rich. Only 28% thought it was focused on middle America and 7% most interested in helping the poor. A second survey from a different pollster found that Americans are five times as likely to say the Republican Party is NOT compassionate as are likely to say it is.
4. The power of elite donors: When socially liberal, irreligious Europe looks across the Atlantic towards America it is the American right’s attitude towards guns and abortion that most perplexes it. Coastal America also finds the values of “flyover America” confusing. In the most politically ill-judged remark of his time in public life Barack Obama talked about how middle America clings to guns, religion or antipathy to the immigrant as a way of explaining their frustrations. For the purpose of this article there’s another group that believes that blue collar, churchgoing America is the problem – the Republican party’s donors. The polling evidence suggests that blaming social conservatism is unjustified. Contrary to elite opinion Henry Olsen has noted that “every Romney state has at least a plurality that believes abortion should be either completely illegal or legal only in “special cases (such as rape, incest, or when the health of the mother is at risk).” “Pro-life sentiments,” Olsen continued, “command majority or plurality support in 31 states with a total of 314 electoral votes.” While the popularity of gay marriage does pose problems for Republican traditionalists there is not much evidence that social issues are driving the Republican defeat. Asked by Pew Research to rate 18 issues in terms of how important they were in determining their vote abortion finished 16th, birth control 17th and gay marriage 18th. The top five issues were the economy, jobs, the budget deficit, healthcare and education. If the Republicans have a primary problem it is an economic one. As Olsen (again) has argued the party is not seen as on the side of ordinary people. It needs to have tax, immigration and regulatory policies that are more orientated to Main Street than Wall Street. The big barrier to that happening are the big money donors that fund the Republicans. Rather than examining the “Wall Street problem” a report by donors declared war on the party’s cultural conservatives. Ross Douthat at the New York Times was unimpressed and warned that “jettisoning cultural conservatives in order to protect an unpopular economic agenda” would deliver exactly the opposite electoral effect to the one intended.
5. The decline of growth: For much of the post-war period the US grew by more than 3% every year but the twenty year moving average has declined to 2.5% and the ten year moving average is down to 1.7%. This is rightly perceived as a particular problem for the Republicans. The GOP is the party most identified with the free market. If American capitalism isn’t delivering growth, jobs and rising incomes for most Americans on the scale that it once did there is a danger that more and more voters (mistakenly) turn to the party that believes that government is the more reliable source of economic welfare: the Democrats.
6. The immigration divide: The divide over immigration and the future of undocumented, illegal immigrants is probably the biggest split inside the Republicans – and the hardest to resolve. The Wall Street and big business donors like immigrants – they keep wages in their businesses low and often provide the most reliable and hardworking employees. Reforming Republicans also know that some form of normalisation of residency for undocumented immigrants is essential to building support amongst the fast-growing Hispanic population. But a large percentage of Republican voters take a Ukippish line on immigration. They don’t like the impact on jobs and incomes of immigration. They don’t like the fact that the border with Mexico is so porous. They don’t like rewarding illegal entry. 63% of all Republicans think that immigrants are a “burden” by “taking jobs, housing and healthcare”. While independent voters disagree with that view one prominent Republican who agrees with the Republican base is Donald Trump…
7. Third party splitters: While the Left may be splitting across the world and may one day split in America too the Democratic coalition is currently held together by big marquee candidates like Obama and Hillary Clinton. The Republicans are more fractious. George Bush Senior lost his re-election bid in 1992 to Bill Clinton because of Ross Perot’s third party candidacy and there is an increasing danger that Donald Trump might do the same in this cycle. Polling for the Washington Post found that Hillary Clinton leads Jeb Bush by 50% to 44% in a hypothetical head-to-head match up. But her 6% lead widens to a 46% to 30% advantage if “The Donald” was to stand as an independent – a course that he has not ruled out. He claims to have the money to run if he chose such a kamikaze option. He’s worth somewhere between $3 billion (Bloomberg’s evaluation) and $10 billion (his own not so modest boast).
8. The “Corbynism” of ideological purity: When an opinion poll for The Times found that the Marxist left-winger, Jeremy Corbyn MP, was leading the race to become the next leader of the British Labour Party it also found that understanding what it takes to win an election was a low priority for party members in choosing a leader. Other ideological tests were more significant. The Republicans appear to have a similar problem. This conversation was recorded by the Daily Beast: “As I was chatting with a man in his mid-30s, the conversation turned to the 2016 presidential race. When I asked him who he was supporting as the Republican nominee, his answer was Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Then I was prompted to ask the question I ask every Republican after they tell me their preferred candidate: “Do you think Rand Paul can win 270 electoral votes?” The man immediately replied, “I never thought about that.”” Just as The Guardian, social media and trade union leaders have nurtured an ideological Left in Britain, talk radio, the Tea Party phenomenon and to some extent Fox News have nurtured an ideological, no-compromising Right. David Frum has called it “a Conservative Entertainment Complex”.
9. Modernisation and the George W Bush legacy: There was one serious attempt at Republican modernisation in the last two decades and it came in 1999 and 2000 with George W Bush’s compassionate conservatism. Key to Bush’s outreach was an emphasis on education reform (it led to the bipartisan “No Child Left Behind” Act – signed with Ted Kennedy), a new medicare prescription drugs entitlement, the PEPFAR aid programme for Africa, and, more controversially, an emphasis on faith-based welfare and immigration reform. If the Iraq war had not gone as badly and if the economic crash had not occurred Bush’s compassionate agenda might have been rescuable. But the whole Bush era became associated with political failure and compassionate conservatism was caught in the contagion. There are reform conservative efforts underway now but they are held back by memories of what many Republicans regard as the “big government Conservatism” of the Bush years.
10. ObamaCare is here to stay: The Affordable Care Act has survived Supreme Court challenges and looks likely to survive. Although it has proved expensive for many middle class Americans and its rollout was chaotic the latest Gallup tracking survey suggests that 44% approve of it compared to 50% who disapprove of it. While this number is still a negative it is a big improvement on the 19% approval deficit that it was receiving last year. Many Republican presidential candidates are determined to repeal ObamaCare but that would frighten many lower income, minority Americans who finally have health cover. These are exactly the younger, black and Hispanic, poorer voters that we began with – they represent the Republicans’ demographic deficit and attacks on ObamaCare only dig the Republicans into a still deeper hole.
Can these challenges be overcome? I don’t know but I’ll return to CapX tomorrow with Part II of this two part series: What the Republicans can do to try to retake the White House.