In the last weeks of the election, most people thought Obama would win, but hardly anyone thought he would win like he did Tuesday night. Nobody thought we would know as early as 11:30 pm EST who the victor was. 2012 wasn’t 2008 – Obama lost two states (Indiana and North Carolina) that he won four years ago, the House remains in Republican hands – but it certainly was a great night for liberals, and for women and queers in particular.
In 2008, we expected this, to some degree. People were fed up with years of failed Bush policies, and the economic failure with McCain saying “The fundamentals of the economy are strong” could only help Democrats. But in 2012, this feels a bit out of the blue. So what exactly happened to make this a great night for liberals? Well, to put it frankly: the Republicans didn’t exactly deliver.
Since Tuesday’s victory, I’ve been reading a lot about “soul-searching” in the Republican Party, and what they can do when this was an election they were expected to win, and yet they seemed to have lost much more decisively than expected. Was it the extremist positions on women’s rights, from wanting to defund Planned Parenthood to Akin and Mourdock’s stupid comments about rape? Insisting on anti-gay positions when the country is rapidly moving in the opposite direction? Romney making an ass of himself about Hurricane Sandy? The 47% comments? Alienating Latino/a voters with extremist positions on immigration? Blatant House obstructionism purely to try to force Obama into a one-term presidency? Or all of the above, and more?
Since the 1960s, the Republicans have built themselves on being the party of the conservative white man. And indeed, the last time a Democrat won a majority or plurality of the white vote was in 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson won all but six states in a landslide over AZ Senator Barry Goldwater. This was the same year Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which caused him to remark, “We’ve lost the South for a generation” – a region the Republicans were only too happy to snap up, with next president Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” to play on the racial resentments of Southern white voters as their road to victory for the next several decades. But those same racial politics – plus the anti-women and anti-gay politics that came into the party platform with the rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s – may now be alienating more voters than they’re recruiting. We simply aren’t the same country that we were when Nixon first won in 1968, especially in the Southwestern part of the country.
Latinos and Latinas are one of the fastest growing demographic groups in the U.S., and it may not be long, as many have opined, until they are actually the ethnic majority in the United States. The transformation of Colorado and Nevada into swing states in the last few election cycles has largely been due to increasing numbers of Latino/a voters, and some have projected that current red states Arizona and Texas are moving in that direction as well. As recently as eight years ago, the Republican leadership was aware of these changing demographics and had planned a way forward that wasn’t quite as hostile toward Latino/a voters, but extremists in the party changed all that. From Nicholas Lemann at The New Yorker:
The seeds of Romney’s defeat were sown during Bush’s second term. Bush and Karl Rove were fully aware of how unfavorable the country’s changing demographics were to the Republican Party. First-term initiatives like the No Child Left Behind education bill and the Medicare prescription-drug benefit were meant to lure important Democratic constituencies (mothers and senior citizens respectively) to the Republican side. After Bush’s reëlection, a big proposed change in the structure of Social Security was supposed to persuade Americans that they could entrust their retirement savings to an ever-rising stock market, instead of to the government, and a sweeping immigration-reform plan was supposed to bring Latino voters into the G.O.P. But these both failed; the intra-party revolt over immigration reform in the summer of 2006, which took the Bush White House by surprise, nearly guaranteed that in 2008 and 2012, the ever-rising number of Latino voters would represent wind in the Democrats’ sails.
This really gets at one of the main albatrosses the Republicans have hanging around their neck: the “base.” While the moderate or libertarian wing of the party can often be (personally) pragmatic in their choices, holding their nose for someone whom they totally disagree with on social issues because they like their tax policy or for “the good of the party,” the socially-conservative, racist ultra-right feels entitled to candidates who exactly match their views after years of the party pandering to the Religious Right and racist white voters via the Southern Strategy. As a result, rather than the presumably more moderate immigration reform plan that Bush had in mind in the middle part of the last decade, we now have the party embracing racial profiling as “immigration restrictions,” as in the infamous Arizona law. No wonder, then, that Latino/a voters are defecting heavily to the Democrats; according to the Huffington Post, only 27% of Latino voters picked Romney this year, compared to 44% voting for Bush in 2004.
The problem with the base is larger than simply the immigration issue. While the rise of the Tea Party in 2010 helped the Republicans clinch the House, even that year, we saw some problems with how the group’s stranglehold over Republican primaries was turning out races that Republicans were expected to win. The big names that year were Christine O’Donnell of Delaware and Sharron Angle of Nevada, both of whom beat more moderate Republicans in the primaries because of Tea Party enthusiasm, and then went on to lose the general elections because the larger electorate found them off-putting. This year, Richard Mourdock of Indiana – he of the “babies from rape are a gift from God” quote — was the Christine O’Donnell; he beat six-term incumbent Senator Dick Lugar in the primary, and then lost the general election to Democrat Joe Donnelly after his rape comments made national news.
Republicans will continue to be successful in House races, because it’s a regional campaign for a national office; you only have to convince a small and often relatively insular community to vote for you. The majority of the country will see someone like Michele Bachmann or Paul Ryan as scary extremists, but their particular conservative district doesn’t. (And thanks to gerrymandering, the party in office in a state will always be able to carve out seats for themselves regardless of changes in demographic trends.) For a lot of far-right voters who live in insular rural or suburban communities that don’t reflect the country’s racial or political changes over the last few decades, and yet have been the subject of decades of Republican party pandering, the fact that their preferred candidate just wouldn’t win over a larger, more diverse group doesn’t occur to them.
In his New York Times op-ed called “Can Republicans Adapt?,” Nicholas Kristof goes into further detail about how the primary process, because it’s so controlled by extremists, makes it harder for Republicans to choose a candidate who appeals to the whole country. The process forces more moderate Republicans (like Romney is, believe it or not) to push themselves to the right to appeal to “the base.” The one candidate who didn’t fall for this particular song and dance, Jon Huntsman, was, ironically, probably the guy who had the best chance of winning the general:
You would expect the Republican Party to make a similar lurch to the center [as Democrats did in 1992 with Bill Clinton]. But many Republican leaders still inhabit a bubble. It was stunning how many, from Karl Rove to Newt Gingrich, seemed to expect a Romney victory. And some of the right-wing postmortems are suggesting that Romney lost because he was too liberal — which constitutes a definition of delusional.
If the Republicans had nominated Jon Huntsman Jr., they might have been the ones celebrating right now. But he had no chance in Republican primaries because primary voters are their party’s worst enemy.
Kristof has an explanation for why this is:
Part of the problem, I think, is the profusion of right-wing radio and television programs. Democrats complain furiously that Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity smear the left, but I wonder if the bigger loser isn’t the Republican Party itself. Those shows whip up a frenzy in their audience, torpedoing Republican moderates and instilling paranoia on issues like immigration.
All this sound and fury enmeshes the Republican Party in an ideological cocoon and impedes it from reaching out to swing-state centrists, or even understanding them. The vortex spins ever faster and risks becoming an ideological black hole.
Kristof isn’t the only one with this idea; a Mother Jones article published Wednesday explicitly says in the title “The Republican Party Needs to Ditch FOX News If It Wants to Win,” arguing that, rather than FOX serving as the Republican Party’s mouthpiece, now the GOP is “the unwitting puppets of the self-serving right-wing controversy machine. Fox News and the talk radio shock jocks across the country win whether or not conservatives are in power; these purveyors of political entertainment thrive under a Democratic president, perhaps even more so than under their preferred candidates. There’s big money in controversy, and controversy is what the Glenn Becks of the world do best.” While FOX may have worked to rile up the passions of an older generation of swing voters, now that it’s Latino/as, working women and young people deciding elections, all the same race- and religion-infused paranoia simply turns them off, while Tea Party types continue to vote as though nothing is changed.
So far, though, this doesn’t look likely to happen; the GOP media machine seems to be insisting, as Kristof surmised with his “delusional” claim, that the problem is they weren’t conservative enough, and the likes of Glenn Beck are promising to “double down” on their message rather than moderate it. The party leadership may be condemning it – Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) says he’s “going to go nuts” at that claim, adding, “We’re not losing 95 percent of African-Americans and two-thirds of Hispanics and voters under 30 because we’re not being hard-ass enough” – but unfortunately, those words don’t mean as much to the base as those of the party demagogues. One of the most telling quotes is from former Bush re-election campaign advisor Matthew Dowd, who said the GOP is turning into “a ‘Mad Men’ party in a ‘Modern Family’ America.” But if anything, the far-right revels in that charge, with its 1960s-style ideas about stuff like birth control. (Or, in predictable fashion, dismissing Dowd’s comment as “liberal lecturing” despite his well-documented conservative credentials.)
Women and LGBTs have also been big in moving the country away from Republicans. It wasn’t just that Romney was unfortunate enough to endorse Richard Mourdock a day before his rape comments, or that he picked anti-choice extremist Paul Ryan for his running mate (the discussion of who Romney should have picked instead could take up a whole ‘nother article); Democrats were tying even relatively moderate Republicans to the extremists in their party across the country. For example, Elizabeth Warren’s campaign released this advertisement tying a vote for Scott Brown to a vote for a Republican-controlled Senate that would, among other things, vote for a Supreme Court justice to overturn Roe v. Wade:
While the Republican Party has been seeming less interested in emphasizing their anti-gay credentials in recent elections, it’s not like they’ve exactly gone away; opposition to LGBT equality is still a core tenet of the Republican Party platform. And it’s not like we can’t remember times when our inequality was THE Republican wedge issue; hell, it was as recently as the 2004 election, so even younger queers recall this. As our star has risen this year, LGBT Americans have made it more and more clear to our friends and family that you can’t support equality and vote for an anti-gay candidate, no matter what other reasons you might have; editorials like this famous one on the Huffington Post calling for de-friendings from Romney voters because, you know, “I care more about lower taxes than I do about your equality” isn’t actually that much better than “I don’t want you to have equality.” Women’s rights advocates have done a lot to raise the issue of what would happen to the Supreme Court if Romney were elected, and how that would risk an overturn of Roe v. Wade; it would also have risked freezing us in time or even turning back the clock on LGBT equality if Romney got to appoint another Scalia or Thomas who would swing the court in favor of the Prop 8 defenders in that likely-upcoming case. With both their rejection of Romney-Ryan and of their support of equality in ballot proposals – anti-equality forces’ favorite tactic – voters made it clear that the anti-gay movement is its death throes now, and it won’t be long before it ceases to be an issue altogether – much less one a major party can use to drum up votes.
The Republicans will still have some electoral victories, like they did tonight by retaining their hold on the House, especially when it comes to House campaigns and local or state campaigns that don’t require convincing a huge group of people. But Republicans banking on a 2010 electorate don’t realize how much it was an anomaly, or even an exception that proved the rule (since it involved many key Democratic demographics staying home in large numbers), and that the electorate in the future is going to look much more like we saw in 2008 and 2012. Republicans need to wake up to the realization that the Southern Strategy is outdated. If Republicans want to continue to be relevant, they need to listen to women, people of color, queers and others outside of their traditional white Christian male base, or their long-term success as a national party is in serious jeopardy.