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There’s a debate going on in some Republican circles over which groups of the electorate the party should target.
This debate starts off with some uncomfortable realizations. One is that while John McCain’s 46 percent share of the vote is not as dismal as some losing candidates of the past, it is still far short of a majority and does not look to be easily expanded. Yes, McCain showed strength in Jacksonian America, along the Appalachian chain and west to Arkansas and Oklahoma. And he ran well with whites in the Deep South. But these are not growing demographics.
A second uncomfortable realization is that McCain ran dismally among blacks
(losing 95 percent to 4 percent, according to the Edison-Mitofsky exit poll) and
voters under 30 (losing 66 percent to 32 percent). The good news for Republicans
is that there’s not much room for Democrats to grow among black voters. The bad
news is that voters who were under 30 in 2008 are going to be a larger and
larger share of the electorate. To get a glimpse of the future, consider that
McCain carried young voters in only nine states with 57 electoral votes. And in
only five of those states, with 22 electoral votes, did he win more than 55
percent of the young.
A final uncomfortable realization is that the affluent suburbs have, outside
the South and even in parts of the South–North Carolina’s Research Triangle,
metro Orlando–become Democratic. Nationally, McCain ran even with Barack Obama
among voters with incomes over $50,000 and over $100,000. He actually ran behind
among voters with incomes over $200,000. Obama carried narrowly those with
college degrees and ran far ahead among those with graduate degrees.
The debate among Republicans is whether to go after downscale or upscale
voters. Those who argue for going downscale usually have a 2012 candidate in
mind: Sarah Palin. She has an undoubted appeal to such voters and revved up part
of the Republican base–cultural conservatives, and rural and small-town
voters–throughout the campaign. Despite the scorn the media heaped on her, she
has excellent political instincts and seems capable of developing the knowledge
base that would make her a credible presidential candidate in the future.
But my examination of the exit poll results and county-by-county election
returns has led me to conclude tentatively that going upscale is the right move.
As David Frum has pointed out, we’re going to have more well-educated and
millennial-generation voters in the future and fewer less-educated and Baby
Boomers (among whom McCain ran even).
There are some immediate targets. Among all voters, Democratic House
candidates won higher percentages than Obama. But voters at the low end of the
age spectrum and the high end of the income and education spectrums cast higher
percentages for Obama than House Democrats. They are, at the moment, Obama
Republicans, hopeful that Obama can forge the bipartisan coalitions he has
promised and eager for the change they think he represents. But that’s not the
change that congressional Democrats have produced, at least so far.
They passed their pork-laden stimulus package in the House without a single
Republican vote. This positions Republican candidates to say, more in sorrow
than in anger, that congressional Democrats are preventing our president from
governing as he wants to. We want to help.
Going upscale also means downplaying the cultural issues that were an
important reason for Republican victories from 1980 to 2004. Here, young voters
are critical, and their attitudes give guidance. They oppose criminalization of
abortion, but they also disfavor it–the position of the great middle of the
electorate. They tend to favor same-sex marriage–the days of winning votes by
opposing it are nearing an end. And while they seem blithely confident that
government action can solve problems like health care, they are also a
generation that insists on choice in their personal lives. Members of the iPod
generation don’t wait for their elders to tell them what the top 40 songs are.
They make their own playlists.
There’s a tension here, which Republicans can exploit, between the tactics of
the MyObama campaign and the policies he favors that would limit
choices–one-size-fits-all government health insurance, the effective abolition
of secret ballot unionization elections, and environmental policies that reduce
your choice of cars and increase the price of energy.
Republicans can argue that their policies will let you choose your future.
No, I don’t have a candidate in mind, and I don’t think Republicans can abandon
cultural conservatives altogether. But upscale seems to me to be the way to
Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.
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