Scott Brown's improbable win in the Massachusetts Senate election is the latest and most dramatic evidence of the Republicans' greatly improved electoral outlook. As polls have shown dissatisfaction with President Obama rising and Democratic leads in congressional generic-ballot polls shrinking or gone, GOP operatives have started 2010 with visions of 1994 dancing in their heads.
But a closer look at the data rings alarm bells. Recent polls also show that voters' ratings of the Republican party and Republican members of Congress have barely budged and remain sharply negative: Greater support for GOP candidates has not meant greater support for the GOP in general. Independents consistently outnumber both Democrats and Republicans, and GOP party identification remains at or close to 70-year lows, with some polls showing less than a quarter of Americans saying they are Republicans.
It's tempting to dismiss these negative signs. Conservatives are fond of citing polls that show self-described conservatives outnumbering self-described liberals by nearly two to one, a figure that has remained roughly stable since the mid-1970s. "America is a center-right nation," elephantine apologists say, and since the GOP is a center-right party, the political implications are supposedly clear. They argue that the GOP's poor standing doesn't matter in a two-party system; anger at Democrats inevitably leads to GOP votes. Once Republicans are back in power, they can reestablish the center-right majority and return to dominance.
I'm not so sure. I see the current state of affairs as an intensification, perhaps even a culmination, of four interrelated 25-year political trends: a growing distrust of conservative and liberal ideologies, a growing movement away from the two parties and toward political independence, increases in the racial-minority (which usually means Democratic-voting) share of the population, and a growing inability of the Republican party to bridge the gap between its populist and elite wings.
Together, these trends raise the specter of a serious independent, populist presidential candidacy for the first time in a century. And if the GOP doesn't adapt to the shifting political terrain, there is even a remote possibility that the identity of America's two dominant parties will change for the first time since the 1850s, which saw the death of the Whigs and birth of the Republicans.
Consider the first trend, a retreat from ideology. Despite the party polarization in Congress, it's clear from polls and election results that the public has been seeking a middle ground for quite some time. On fiscal issues, polls show a desire for less government and lower taxes in the abstract, but support for most specific (and expensive) government programs. On cultural issues, polls show that people want abortion with serious restrictions, and gay rights without gay marriage. Even conservatives' much-touted voter-identification advantage can be exaggerated. While self-described conservatives do significantly outnumber self-described liberals, the largest group during the modern political era has always been self-described moderates.
Further, election results since 1980 suggest unwillingness to accept rule by either party's base. Left-leaning Democrats like Michael Dukakis and John Kerry were rejected even when facing Republican nominees with strong disapproval ratings. Successful candidates of either party relied on overtly centrist appeals. Both Bushes made clear breaks with the GOP's base, Bush 41 by invoking a "kinder and gentler nation" (which infuriated Nancy Reagan: "Kinder and gentler than who?" she famously quipped) and Bush 43 by embracing a "compassionate conservatism" that envisioned a strong role for government. Clinton spoke of "ending welfare as we know it" and infuriated the Left by signing a welfare-reform bill. And Obama rocketed to public acclaim with his 2004 Democratic-convention address, in which he spoke of one America, neither red nor blue.
This trend toward pragmatic centrism can perhaps be most clearly seen in the rise of something that is now almost commonplace, the independent campaign for governor or president. Between 1928 and 1968, third-party presidential candidates represented ideological splinters from either the left (Henry Wallace in 1948, Socialist Norman Thomas in 1928 and 1932) or the Jim Crow South (Strom Thurmond in 1948, George Wallace in 1968). Third-party candidates at the state level were rare and, when victorious, represented a wing of a fractured party, like James Buckley, who was elected senator from New York on the Conservative-party ticket in 1970. Truly independent candidates, people who ran without the backing of any established party, were virtually nonexistent.
Since 1988, however, this has changed, with third-party candidates running against rigid ideology instead of espousing it. Independent centrists have won governorships in Connecticut, Maine, and Minnesota; others have run strong but losing races. Ross Perot did well for a third-party candidate when he ran for president in 1992 and 1996, and speculation about independent candidates such as Colin Powell and Michael Bloomberg is now a staple of the presidential season. Candidates of this type have different personalities and biographies but are cut from the same political cloth: They invariably run against special interests and for the people, as fiscal but not social conservatives, and promise the sort of pragmatic problem-solving of which party-backed candidates are said to be incapable.
One might be tempted to dismiss these trends as products of the candidates' particular strengths rather than expressions of mistrust of ideology, but our second trend--growing voter self-identification as political independents--provides evidence against that interpretation. In 1964, according to Gallup polls, 51 percent of Americans identified themselves as Democrats, 25 percent as Republicans, and 23 percent as independents. But as Democrats showed themselves unable to solve the nation's problems, and with Republicans mired in seemingly permanent minority status, both parties dropped in public esteem. In 1980 the breakdown of voters' political affiliations was 45 percent Democrat, 23 percent Republican, and 29 percent independent, and despite Republican electoral successes over the next three decades, the proportion of Americans who say they are independent has continued to rise. In every year since George H. W. Bush's defeat in 1992, the number of Americans identifying themselves as independents has equaled or exceeded the number identifying themselves as Republicans, according to annual polls by the Pew Research Center.
The political stasis that characterized the 1992-2008 period, an era that Michael Barone famously called "50-50 nation," was in fact not 50-50 but a roughly equal three-way split between a liberal Democratic base, a conservative Republican base, and an independent third group that switched or divided its allegiance depending on which party seemed responsive to its concerns.
Republicans who see the party's underlying weakness and want to address it, however, must also address our last two trends, both of which are harmful to the GOP. The first is America's changing demography. Since 1980, immigration and larger black turnout have created an electorate that is increasingly non-white, which means increasingly Democratic. In 1980, 88 percent of the voters were white; in 1988, 85 percent were. By 2008, the number had dropped to 74 percent, and McCain lost non-white voters 81-18. Meanwhile, whites are becoming wealthier and more educated. Such voters, who increasingly vote Democratic, tend to be concentrated in non-southern suburbs. Reagan and Bush 41 were able to win majorities of them, but in 2008 Obama carried non-southern whites earning over $80,000 a year.
These shifts have changed the electoral landscape. Political journalist Ron Brownstein has calculated that if six demographic groups (blacks, Hispanics, Asians, other minorities, college-educated whites, and all other whites) had voted in 2008 as they actually did but had composed the shares of the electorate that they did in 1992, McCain would have beaten Obama by 2.3 percent.
Demographics are projected to get even worse for the GOP in coming years. Census estimates show that 34 percent of the American population is non-white, with the number rising to 44 percent among children. Even if immigration is halted, an unlikely event, the non-white share of the electorate will grow. Under those circumstances, a Republican who does not raise his or her share of the non-white vote well above the record highs recorded by George W. Bush in 2004 will by 2016 need to carry 60 percent or more of the white vote to get a majority.
And that will not be possible if Republicans do not heal their divisions. That brings us to our fourth trend: the growing rift between the two major wings of the party, the populists and the elite.
Modern conservatism started as a revolt against the eastern, liberal, urban wing of the Republican party. Goldwaterites made common cause with the easterners' old adversaries, Republicans from the party's midwestern wing, which was pro-business and suspicious of government intervention both at home and abroad.
But by the early 1970s, the conservative movement had grown beyond its old base to incorporate many former Democrats. They were economically conservative, although often not as conservative as the Goldwaterites; they were internationally interventionist; and they added a cultural-conservative component to GOP campaigns. They were disproportionately from areas where the GOP had not done well in generations: the South and the ethnic Catholic wards of big and medium-sized cities.
Ronald Reagan united all wings of the movement on the basis of populist style as much as ideology. From his casual brown suits to his folksy demeanor, Reagan sought to portray himself as a humble representative of what he called in a prescient 1964 National Review article "the forgotten American--that simple soul who goes to work, bucks for a raise, takes out insurance, pays for his kids' schooling, contributes to his church and charity and knows there just 'ain't no such thing as a free lunch.'" The character of his following was obvious. The journalist Theodore H. White remarked to Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger that Reagan's 1980 victory party was "the frowsiest crowd of frumps" he had ever seen. Nofziger replied, "Yup, that's us. We're the middle class."
Since 1980, intra-GOP fights have increasingly been waged between candidates who are comfortable with this new movement and those who are not. Reagan's nearly successful 1976 challenge to incumbent president Gerald Ford united what remained of the old eastern and midwestern wings in opposition to it. And Reagan's presidency shifted the ground so much that by 1988, Bob Dole--who twelve years earlier, as Ford's running mate, had been seen as an arch-conservative--was viewed by many conservatives as a moderate because of his willingness to raise taxes. With liberal Republicans leaving the party in droves, and with conservative former Democrats joining by the day, Dole was easy pickings for George H. W. Bush, who ran as a populist conservative and clinched his nomination with a win in a state previously unimportant to GOP hopefuls, South Carolina.
Once in office, however, Bush governed in a manner reminiscent of the country-club Republicans. On issue after issue, he sided with the old elites over the new majority, and the 1992 elections are best seen as two consecutive populist revolts against him. First Pat Buchanan challenged Bush in the primaries on an anti-tax theme, doing quite well in initial heats. Then Ross Perot launched a populist campaign that split the Reagan-Bush coalition, leading to the election of Bill Clinton even though Clinton received a smaller share of the vote than Michael Dukakis had four years earlier.
The GOP's electoral fortunes since have depended in large part on the ability of its leaders to unite populists and elites behind a shared goal. President Clinton's missteps would have made 1994 a good year for Republicans in any event, but Newt Gingrich's uniting of populist fervor (term limits, an end to congressional corruption) and elite concerns (balanced-budget amendment, fiscal probity) through the Contract with America turned a good year into a historic one. Similarly, the domestic and international stresses of the past few years would have hurt Republicans in the 2006 and 2008 elections regardless. But the GOP's congressional leadership exacerbated these problems through its failure to offer a comprehensive governing agenda. This led to wild gyrations in emphasis to satisfy populist and elite demands, an inconsistency that ultimately hurt the Republican image among both groups.
More recent elections have shown the importance to the GOP of getting this balance right. Doug Hoffman in New York's 23rd congressional district had many flaws, such as his lack of familiarity with local issues and his non-residence in the district. But surely his campaign style, a brand of fiery populism that excited grass-roots conservatives, contributed to his final defeat. Many moderate Republicans who were backing the establishment GOP candidate, Dede Scozzafava, ended up voting for the Democrat, Bill Owens, whose campaign was languishing below 40 percent in the polls before she dropped out and endorsed him. On the other hand, candidates like Scott Brown have shown it is possible simultaneously to satisfy the populist desire for an ordinary person who opposes Obama's agenda and the elite desire for someone thoughtful and willing to work with reasonable people from all parties.
Seen against this backdrop, the continuing debate over the proper role of tea-party conservatives in the 2010 elections is merely the latest flashpoint in a multi-decade war. Each side in this war should recognize that it needs the other to win, as a recent Rasmussen poll demonstrates. This poll showed that the Republicans led the Democrats by seven points in a generic congressional ballot, but that if a third "Tea party" was added, the Democrats won handily, pulling 36 percent versus the hypothetical party's 23 percent and the GOP's 18 percent.
Where does this leave us? Republicans should first remember that politics is like tennis, and the Democrats are serving. It's very hard to break service against a competent player, and there is still time for Obama and his party to regain their game. Obama's slide in the polls has been steep, but his year-end standing was eerily similar to Ronald Reagan's in December 1981. Back then, Reagan had 49 percent approval; Obama had 50 percent in the late-December 2009 polling average on RealClearPolitics. Reagan's numbers slid throughout 1982 as the economy worsened, reaching their nadir at 35 percent in January 1983.
But Reagan recovered nicely, relying on issues that unified his coalition, like hard-line positions against the Soviets. The fast-recovering economy also helped, and as his numbers recovered--and with Democrats unable to overcome their own intra-party divisions during their presidential primaries--Reagan swept to an epic reelection win that placed the GOP on the path toward the continued power it would wield for another 20 years.
If both of today's parties continue their missteps, however, it is not at all inconceivable that a serious third-party presidential candidate could arise. In this scenario, by early 2012 independents would make up a record-high 40 percent or more of the electorate. President Obama would be discredited, blamed for governing from the left and failing to improve the economy while saddling our nation with previously incomprehensible deficits. The GOP would be viewed as the party of incompetence and narrow-mindedness, simultaneously alienating elites and populists. It's easy to envision the rallying cry for this candidate: "Republicans are for the rich, Democrats are for the government, I'm for you."
One should not overestimate the odds of such a candidate's success. Independent campaigns must spend many months and millions of dollars simply qualifying for the ballot in 50 states. They lack the fundraising and volunteer infrastructures that a major party can provide, and without a primary campaign or any presence in the White House or Congress, they must fight extremely hard to receive the free media coverage that major-party campaigns command. But in a scenario where both major parties are discredited and the electorate is looking for a third way, one would be foolish to dismiss the possibility of an independent win.
Such a victory would be historic enough, but it need not end there. Current trends, if left unchecked, will produce a political situation quite similar to that of the early 1850s, which led to the demise of the Whig party. The Whigs collapsed under the pressures of immigration and issue-driven populism. Largely Anglophile, they could not make common cause with the Irish and German immigrants who streamed into the country starting in 1848, and their affluent southern wing could not make common cause with the burgeoning anti-slavery movement, which launched three successive third-party campaigns between 1844 and 1852. Yet the Democrats could not reconcile their southern, slaveholding base with these constituencies either, and this created fertile ground for a new party--the Republicans--to grow in.
A more recent example of a major party's destroying itself by immobility and inaction took place in Canada. The Progressive Conservative party, one of the two founding parties of modern Canada, imploded because of its inability to appeal to Canada's Asian immigrants or unite its western, populist wing and its eastern, elite wing. In the 1993 election, the PCP went from 150-odd seats in Parliament to two, and after a decade of confusion, a new party, the current Conservatives, arose to reunite the Right under the leadership of an immigrant-friendly westerner, Stephen Harper.
The path the original Republican party took can be followed by its modern descendant. The Republican party of Lincoln (a former Whig) was diverse and contained many groups seemingly opposed to the others. German immigrants broke bread with anti-immigration Know-Nothings; abolitionists shared space with anti-abolition unionists; pro-slavery, anti-tariff former Democrats partnered with pro-tariff former Whigs. They were unified by a common cause--opposition to the extension of slavery into new territories, including the vast swath that had been won in the Mexican War--and a spirit of cooperation led them to compromise on their differences in pursuit of that goal.
The monstrous deficits being created today could play the same role for the modern GOP (or its replacement) that slavery extension played for its founders. Independents and moderate Democrats are increasingly frightened by the deficits but oppose large tax increases on the middle class. Like antebellum southern intransigents, however, the modern progressive Democratic base seems unwilling to accommodate these concerns in its rush to expand the government, a rush that ultimately can be financed only by high taxes on the middle and upper-middle classes like those seen in Canada and Western Europe. In the 1850s the Democratic party drove away many of its northern members who had reluctantly tolerated slavery, because the party's raucous southern base rejected any compromise. Today, the raucous progressive blogosphere is already trumpeting the song of no compromise, sending shivers down the spines of moderate and elite Democrats.
While we should not overemphasize the parallel between Lincoln's times and ours, the political analogy is on point. Any issue or concern that is widely believed to be of crucial importance by large majorities of swing and base voters can be used to create new and lasting political coalitions. It is not inconceivable that a new party arising to combat Obama's deficits could be as diverse as the original Republicans, including immigrants and anti-illegal-immigration activists, social conservatives and agnostic professionals, populist Blue Dogs and traditional Republicans. Whether this coalition would be gathered under a new party founded by an independent president seeking a congressional base, or would be merely a reborn Republican party, is one of the political questions that would face GOP leaders.
Certainly the recent victories of Brown, Bob McDonnell, and Chris Christie demonstrate a possible way forward, but it is much easier to campaign than it is to govern, as Obama is now learning to his dismay. An opposition party can hold together and rally the public against an unpopular opponent, but once it takes power, internal fissures grow more prominent and a skeptical public becomes much less indulgent. The ongoing trends mentioned above will make the task of governing even tougher for the Republicans, should they regain power, than it now is for the Democrats.
This long-term lesson must not be lost on the GOP. Relying on Obama and the Democrats to double-fault may win one election, but is unlikely to produce a lasting majority. If the Republicans do not resolve their internal tensions and adjust to demographic shifts and changing public attitudes, they could easily resume their decline and perhaps even go the way of the Whigs.
Henry Olsen is a vice president at AEI and the director of the National Research Initiative.