Thursday, November 8, 2012

Thoughts on Tuesday’s Election

For Republicans, this election should have been about the economy.  In a normal year it would have been awfully difficult for any President, or any incumbent, to get re-elected in this economy.  After four years, it should have been nearly impossible to shift blame.  But the fact that none of this happened says something fundamental about the GOP in 2012.

Tuesday was not about the economy.  It was not even about whether Pres. Obama’s healthcare law was an overreach by the government and his party. 

Tuesday’s election was about George Wallace. Yes, the Governor’s part of history now, passing away in 1998 (and to be fair, he did express remorse at the end), but the bitter, resentful, angry, self-righteous, anti-immigrant legacy he left to today’s GOP has now consumed the party.  On Tuesday, simple math and the “better angels” of America’s nature evoked by Lincoln, combined with the dynamic character of America’s population, finally caught up with the Republicans.

Here’s the math:  In a country where the percentage of minority voters is now 28% - and rising – the GOPs 40+ year strategy of appealing to white voters, and more specifically white males, has now run its course.  Gov. Romney won 59% of white voters, who made up 72% of the electorate.  But he lost African-Americans 93-7(!) (13% of the electorate); Hispanics 71-29 (10%, and surging) and Asians 73-27 (3%).  These Americans (and other immigrants) hear what is being said about them, either directly or in code.  Naturally, they are voting against it.

In 2008, following John McCain’s defeat, I wrote this – “Twenty years ago, when Jesse Jackson was winning Democratic presidential primaries, I used to wonder if a Democrat could say what had to be said to win the nomination and still win in November. Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis confirmed that the answer was "No.”

The GOP is now in the same ditch, far from the electable mainstream and right where the Democrats were before Bill Clinton pulled them out.     

Another interesting facet of the current state of the GOP is the party’s indifferent relationship with facts. Whether it’s an insistence that tax cuts reduce deficits, Gov. Romney’s misleading (at best) ad about Jeep moving jobs to China, the attacks on Nate Silver’s use of statistical models to assess polling data or Karl Rove’s meltdown about his home network Fox News bowing to scientific laws of probability and calling Ohio for Obama Tuesday night (and here), the party seems to have adopted Nietzche’s philosophy that “There are no facts, only interpretations."   This outlook will only reinforce an existing tendency towards unfounded certainty, making it even easier to blame the voters.  This, in turn, will make the transition to something new and electable even harder.

All of these troublesome traits find their focus on the problem of the so-called “Tea Party”, which will be a vexing one for the GOP to solve.  They are a reliable enthusiastic base, but they are not really serious about problem-solving, and their allegiance comes at a very high cost.  They forced Sen. McCain (see, Sarah Palin) then Gov. Romney far to the right to win the nomination.  For both, there was no coming back to electability.

The Tea Party has also cost the GOP four U.S. Senate seats.  In 2010 it was Nevada and Delaware (“I am not a witch”).  In 2012, it was Indiana and Missouri, where two fringe candidates made comments about rape that cost the party seats they should have won.  Forfeiting four winnable Senate seats is a high price to pay to secure a base that is never, ever satisfied.

This is not to say that America is not facing serious problems.  While the Obama years have seen a significant reduction in the rate at which spending has increased, we continue to accumulate debt at an unsustainable rate.  Further, we have made commitments to entitlement spending that simply can’t be met.  In Rhode Island, our state’s economic performance speaks for itself. 

Once, the Republicans had an answer:  Ronald Reagan.  But Pres. Obama was right when he observed that Reagan could never win today’s GOP nomination.  The cheerful, optimistic, neighborly, “give the other guy a hand up and the benefit of the doubt if he genuinely needs it”, pragmatic world-view that personified the Gipper has been swallowed by something much darker.

People are open to alternatives in 2012, largely because they are uneasy, some even frightened.  Things have changed so much from our parents’ day that bedrock ideas – like the notion that hard work and loyalty would bring security and upward mobility – are now called into question.

This uncertainty, and our self-evident, self-created problems make people open to change.  But they’re reluctant to give the reins to strangers who make them vaguely uneasy –a little too rigid, a little too self-certain, a little angry and maybe even a little mean.  Given the choice presented on Tuesday, it’s not surprising that many voters decided to overlook the familiar flaws of the status quo, and stick with what they know.  That uneasiness, and the resulting outcome, was felt here in Rhode Island, too.

If they want to win again, the Republicans have a painful path ahead of them.  What they’re doing now isn’t working, and will become even less likely to work in the future.  Some, egged on by the hosts of their “Entertainment” wing, will demand an even more pure version of what they are today, because that’s where the pundits’ bread is buttered.  Many will blame the voters, ignoring the market-based truism that the customer is always right.  They’ll argue amongst themselves.  But if they want to win, they’ll have to find their own Bill Clinton.  They’ll have to change.

Posted by David Preston


Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful and provocative analysis. Well worth a conveying to a wider audience, particularly those of us who are still shaking our heads and refixing our jaws after Tuesday's stunning election results.

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful and provocative analysis. Deserves a wider audience, particularly among those of us whose mouths are still agape at the stunning and surprising election results both nationally and here in Rhody.

Troy Centazzo said...

Excellent post, David.

What I find fascinating in the immediate aftermath of the election is that the Republican Party still seems, as it has during the past year, completely split down the middle on the issue of how to fix itself. Some in the establishment are arguing that the Party needs to become more conservative; Romney's moderate stance during recent months was the key problem. Others argue that the party needs to face facts: the electorate is changing and the Party needs to steer more towards the middle.

Also, one of the most interesting narratives coming out after the election is the Obama campaign's masterful use of data-driven modeling and technologies to target, reach, engage and influence voters. This expertise, secretively led by dozens of campaign operatives, has raised fundraising, voter targeting, and GOTV strategies to a new level of precision and effectiveness. Romney got smoked on the ground in the last days of the race. Besides the now-obvious core problems with Romney as a candidate and campaigner, plus some plain bad luck (Sandy, Christie, etc.), "Big Data" clearly had a significant impact in areas that counted the most.

Always enjoy your posts. Keep them coming.

All the best,

Troy Centazzo

NDR said...

Interesting analysis, Dave. The Republican Party must modernize to become viable in the 21st century. Like it or not (and sometimes I don't), a trend toward acceptance of conflicting moral issues has a stronghold on American culture. This should not be confused with the 18th century principles of religious freedom. Americans, more than ever, fiercly reject commingling of religious beliefs and political agenda. This type of social engineering clearly was rejected in this week's election. PLease keep's always a pleasure to tune into your thoughts!
Best always,
Nancy Rocha

Mark Van Noppen said...

Great to see some wisdom from the moderate right, David. It's voice is completely drowned out by the far right, the farther right, the moderate left and the far left. Today's WSJ suggested that Romney lost the election because he didn't have enough money. I'm not sure where the leadership for the moderate right is going to come from but if a reasonable, non-corporate raider had won the nomination there would be a Republican president today. Much of America lives there - not in the loony land that the party occupies currently. I laugh every time I think about that "Committee to Elect Barack Obama" postcard that circulated during the primary, the one with four photos on it: Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Hermann Cain and Mitt Romney. Keep up the good work, and congrats on the New Leader's success.

Karen Burke Morison said...

Interesting analysis. I'd be interested to know what you think of this. When the Democrats were looking inward and placing blame (as Parties do following a loss) after Bush 43 was elected twice, they chose to move to the Left rather than the center. Now, I think the planets aligned for them in that they found a somewhat palatable black candidate (even though many within the Party complained, especially long time civil rights activists and the Clinton wing) and the GOP, as it often does, put forward "the next guy in line" and had a crappy candidate in John McCain, so they managed to win. There's no doubt that Obama has governed (if you can call playing golf and going on vacation all the time governing) from the Far Left. And they ran a good campaign against (again) a crappy GOP candidate. Here's my question: I don't think the next GOP candidate will be as crappy as Dole/McCain/Romney. In fact, if the GOP puts forward a fairly decent candidate, they pretty much win, regardless of policy. I'm an established policy wonk, well known in my field, but I don't think that policy much matters to most voters. So this whole debate about the need to move away from the policies of the Tea Party (who are really a strong, small base of new activists who are actually policy focused) and the regular movement conservatives in either economic, national security or domestic or social groups, seems to be more an effort by the media and others to stir up a controversy that doesn't exist, at least in that way. It also is an effort by the Democrats and their media partners (i.e., MSNBC) to place a label on the GOP that has a negative connotation, all with a mind towards reinforcing the negative stereotype that the Left is creating, not one that is even reality. It's all bogus. Sure there's finger pointing about who and why they lost, but Dems do that in spades, too, without being tagged at the same time with specious labels meant to scare voters.

You do some thoughtful writing. You should use some of your PR skills and get some more attention to your blog. You can make money that way, too, you know! :)