Having lost the US Presidential election to Barack Obama despite high unemployment and an under-performing economy, Republicans will be asking themselves where they went wrong. The soul searching will no doubt be acrimonious but conservative Republicans and their Tea Party allies should think twice before blaming Mitt Romney or the surviving remnants of their Party's moderate wing. There are clear lessons for Republicans to learn, although the pill will be bitter for many to swallow.
In 1969, Kevin Phillips published his classic book The Emerging Republican Majority, which drew on his research on voting patterns for Richard Nixon during his successful 1968 Presidential campaign.
Phillips anticipated that the Pacific Northwest, the Upper Midwest and, especially, New England – long-time strongholds of the Republican Party’s ‘liberal’ wing – would decline in electoral importance to the GOP. He therefore argued that winning the old Confederate South – until then, a stronghold of the Democratic Party – and the so-called ‘Sun Belt’ states of the American Southwest should become central to future Republican strategies for capturing the White House.
With Nixon’s election, Republicans began ruthlessly pursuing a ‘Southern strategy’ appealing to the conservative cultural values of white Southerners alienated by the civil rights movement and the end of racial segregation in the 1960s. This paved the way for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and contributed to the marginalisation of party moderates, who continued to identify with their party’s founding father Abraham Lincoln and the progressive legacy of President Teddy Roosevelt.
Republicans were confident that this same strategy would help deliver them the Presidency this year. After spending over $1 billion on their campaign, they succeeded in winning most of the Deep South and securing the overwhelming support of white Americans – still the biggest single racially defined bloc of voters – and senior citizens.
But President Obama’s victory decisively demonstrates that this sizeable Republican coalition is no longer strong enough to win the White House. Losing virtually every single ‘battleground’ state to the Democrats, it would seem that the Republican majority Phillips anticipated in the late 1960s has now been eclipsed.
Today, the GOP can no longer even rely on several of the Sun Belt states that inspired the conservative Republicanism of Ronald Reagan. This is largely because of the impact of demographic change, with an influx of Latino migrants to states like Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.
In 2004, 44% of Latino Americans supported George W. Bush in his re-election to the Presidency, partly because his social conservatism resonated with the Roman Catholic values of Latino communities. In 2012, however, less than one in every three Latino voters backed Mitt Romney. What went wrong?
Estimates suggest that as many as 20 million illegal immigrants could be living in the USA, many having entered the country across its porous border with Mexico. Recently, Republicans have embraced increasingly intolerant and punitive policy stances towards suspected illegal immigrants. In 2010, the GOP-controlled Arizona state legislature passed the strictest anti-immigration laws in the country. These laws have alienated thousands of lawfully resident Latino Americans.
To court Right-Wing opinion during the Republican primary, Romney pledged to ‘secure the border’ and deport all illegal immigrants. This clearly backfired. Some conservative commentators have suggested that had Romney adopted a more conciliatory tone, enough Latino Americans would have voted for him to win the White House. But is the Party’s ultra-conservative base capable of displaying the self-discipline – or, indeed, the empathy – to grant Republican leaders the policy freedom to take a more humane approach to this controversial subject?
The most important challenge ahead for the Republicans is to reconcile themselves to the role of government in addressing problems of poverty and social inequality.
In 2009, I was living in the United States when the national debate over ‘Obamacare’ intensified. The President’s bill, which would later pass Congress as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, sought to contain the rising costs of healthcare while ensuring that all US citizens enjoyed some form of health insurance cover.
Most medical professionals as well as small and larger businesses (e.g. Walmart) supported the bill. However, it was strongly opposed by conservative Republicans, who equated the bill with ‘socialism’ and argued it was a governmental takeover of healthcare.
The GOP opposition to universal health coverage was a major moral and strategic blunder. It made Republicans look insensitive towards the millions of Americans without appropriate health insurance. It also put them on a collision course with pro-business constituencies concerned about the financial burden of (privatised) healthcare falling on employers.
Insisting they would repeal the Affordable Care Act on the first day of a Romney presidency, Republicans created a powerful incentive for low-income Americans unable to afford health insurance to turn out and vote for Obama. The participation rate of those earning less than $50,000 per annum – the overwhelming majority of which backed the President – increased from 38% in 2008 to 41% in this election.
Embracing moderate America
Ironically, Republicans had in Mitt Romney a candidate who could have plausibly embraced the principle of universal healthcare and argued a more constructive policy approach on Obamacare.
As Governor of Massachusetts in the mid 2000s, Romney built a proud reputation as a moderate Republican, supporting legislation that protected civil rights for gay couples and a woman’s right to access abortion services. He also introduced ‘Romneycare’, a precursor to the Affordable Care Act that expanded healthcare cover to all Massachusetts residents.
Because of this legislative record, Mitt Romney – by instinct, a political moderate – was the one candidate in the Republican Presidential primary capable of appealing to voters who rallied to Obama: the LGBT community, moderates, low-income earners worried about the costs of healthcare, and women. When he rediscovered the voice of moderation during the televised debates in the campaign’s final weeks, he began to look like a President-in-waiting.
But nominating a moderate for the Presidency is different from putting him (or her) in charge of the GOP. The Party’s reactionary, socially conservative grassroots were never to allow him to play to his strengths and lead the party from the political centre. Instead, with all their exaggerated hype about the election being a stark battle between the values of ‘conservative’ (Republican) and ‘liberal’ (Democratic) America, the Christian Right forced Romney into an ideological straightjacket to secure their electoral loyalty, in turn diminishing the potential threat he posed President Obama.
It is clear that America is no longer a conservative or Right-wing country. Obama’s majority demonstrates most Americans want to be governed from the political centre and believe the state is capable of being a positive force in people’s lives.
If it ever wants to win the Presidency again, the Republican Party must embrace this message of moderation. The concern for many GOP leaders must now be whether their party can do so.