For the past couple of decades, the consensus in the mainstream media was that the Democratic Party was in dire trouble: politically close to irrelevance and on the wrong foot demographically. Even Bill Clinton's eight years in power were considered a fluke: brought on by a third-party candidate, Ross Perot, and reliant on a centrist triangulating strategy that threw Congressional Democrats under the bus. Red states were growing the fastest, gaining congressional seats and electoral votes which would ensure a permanent GOP majority.
Obviously, it has not quite worked out like that. From Arizona to North Carolina, and Nevada to New Hampshire, the scope of the defeat for the Republican Party in 2008 is stunning. The very states that the GOP was counting on to build on its electoral successes of the past 20-some years turned against them the hardest. Much of it has to do with the ineptitude of the party's leadership, from the economy to the war in Iraq, but it is also about simple math: did Republicans really think that newcomers to Colorado, Virginia and a dozen other fast-growing states were of the same mind set as the backwards-looking social conservatives that had dominated local politics? Or were they more likely to be transplants from blue states with little appetite for fights about abortion, gay rights, and English-only initiatives?
The answer is in the numbers, and they are ugly for the Republican Party. On the presidential level, the fastest-growing state last year, Nevada, flipped to the Democrats, as did two others among the top 10: Colorado and North Carolina. Georgia swung 14 points, coming close to giving Barack Obama an unexpected victory, and Arizona actually voted more Democratic than four years ago, even with John McCain on the ticket. Rather than strengthening the Republican Party, internal migration and immigration have diluted its strength in some critical strongholds.
It is in the Congressional results that the scope of the disaster for Republicans is best illustrated. Democrats now outnumber Republicans in the delegations of Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. Indeed, New Mexico's entire delegation, as well as its governorship, is Democratic. Among other Western states, California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii and Montana all send more (often far more) Democrats than Republicans to DC. The GOP's Western front now consists of Utah, Alaska, Idaho and Wyoming, some of the smallest states in the country; and even those are showing cracks, with Alaska and Idaho electing Democrats to Congress for the first time in years.
The GOP's ambitions in the Northeast have long been limited, but they nonetheless managed to fall short of even the lowest expectations. New England's six-state, 22-person House caucus is now entirely Democratic thanks to the defeat of last GOP Rep standing Chris Shays in Connecticut. In New York, the Republican delegation now stands at three, less than 10% of the 31 members of Congress from the state.
The Midwest may remain a battleground, although one that was lost resoundingly by Republicans this year: only three of the twelve states in the region now send more Republicans to Congress than Democrats: Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri, the latter now having officially forfeited its bellwether status.
Even in the South, cracks are beginning to show. Virginia and North Carolina, in addition to swinging to Obama, both contributed to the growth in the Democrats' Senate majority and feature Congressional delegations dominated by Democrats. Victories in previously scarlet-red districts in Mississippi and Alabama may also prove problematic for the Republican Party. Overall the GOP has an edge in the region (80 to 62 in the House; 19 to 7 in the Senate) but that is far less of an advantage than the Democratic Party's in the Northeast and the West Coast, for instance.
Those members of Congress from the South represent nearly half the entire GOP representation, and it is not an exaggeration to call the current Republican party a regional one. This in itself is a severe problem for the GOP, especially as the West is actually a faster-growing region, but other demographic data from exit polling should be even scarier for party leaders.
Losing the youth vote is something most Republicans expect, but losing 18-29 year-olds by 66% to 32%, as McCain did this year, is a preposterously high obstacle to future growth. By the same token, the only age group the Republican candidate won, those 65 and older, is not one the party can rely on to stick around forever.
Ethnically and racially, too, the Republican party is in a bind, winning among the only group that is shrinking nationally: non-Hispanic whites. McCain lost by the GOP's usual massive margin among African-Americans, but also by 2 to 1 among Latinos and Asians, the fastest growing groups. The Republican Party lost among urban voters, of course, but also among suburbanites; it scored only among rural voters, a shrinking demographic group.
The loss of the suburbs remains one of the biggest challenges for the GOP, one that has been years in the making, and will not be solved overnight. Here too, a look at Congressional results over the years shows how, one by one, quintessentially suburban districts started falling to Democrats in the 1990s, culminating in this year's victory by Obama in the suburbs. It was not so long ago that places such as Walnut Creek outside of San Francisco, or Long Island, NY, were staunchly Republican bastions. Contra Costa County, where Walnut Creek is located, voted for Obama 68% to 31%, and both Long Island counties favored him too. Both regions are have solely favored Democrats for Congress in recent years. Entire swaths of suburbs around New York, Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, Detroit and large California cities are represented by Democrats in Congress, who often win by massive margins. On the suburban level, GOP strength is concentrated around a handful of Southern cities such as Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta.
Beyond its regional concentration, the Republican Party's face is from another time. The party's only Hispanic Senator has just announced he is not running for reelection, leaving an entirely white, non-Hispanic GOP Senate. In fact, the party's Congressional caucus overall includes only three Latinos, no African-Americans, and just one Asian-American elected this week in a Louisiana district that is so Democratic he is sure to lose in two years. Republican women are a dwindling group in Congress: down to four in the Senate (including the two Senators from Maine), with one, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, likely to retire soon too. In the House, they are down to 18. There are three openly gay Democrats, but no Republicans. Overall, straight white men represent about half of the Democratic Party in Congress, but close to 90% of Republicans. Indeed, nearly half of the Republican caucus is composed of Southern white men.
The conservative remains of Republicanism are likely to yield an ever more right-wing direction, as evidenced by the current race for the party leadership. One strong candidate calls for change that emphasizes "commitment to be the party of [...] respect for the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, the importance of family." It is far from clear that disgust with the Republican position on social issues is the sole culprit for the alienation a growing majority of voters feel towards the party: after all, majorities of voters in California, Arizona and Florida, defeated same-sex marriage recently. But it is certainly clear that right-wing campaigns that focus on the "sanctity" of marriage, life and guns are doomed for failure, at least nationally.
This surely means that in the long run, self-preservation will take precedence, and some form of reason will prevail, as it did, for instance, within the UK's Conservative Party. Drained of life post Margaret Thatcher, the party became increasingly insular, focused on older, native-born, white, male, rural voters, as the country became younger, more diverse and suburban. The current leader of the Conservatives, David Cameron, has brought his party close to victory after 14 years in the wilderness, and his potential success bears some lessons for Republicans, even accounting for transatlantic differences.
The cultural warfare that exists in the United States does not define British political life in the same way, except perhaps on immigration. Nonetheless Cameron has aptly put behind him topics such as gay rights and abortion that are sure losers in the long-term because of cultural and demographic shifts. Indeed, he has co-opted some of the governing Labour Party's stances on these issues, and even taken what in the US would be considered a more liberal attitude than the Democratic Party's. He has also emphasized policies on the environment, for instance, that are of growing concern to suburban and younger voters. Even if the environment is not the top vote-getting issue in most countries, in the UK, at least, it gives Cameron a modern sheen that his party has desperately lacked. The recruitment of candidates who are not straight old white men has also been given a priority, and time will tell how successful that effort will be, but, again, at the very least (and quite cynically) it gives the party a contemporary look that has been sorely lacking. At the very least, Britain's Conservatives have developed a viable marketing strategy.
No one expects a Southern-dominated GOP to abandon its single-minded focus on social issues but, at some point, Republicans will want to win again. After all, many up-and-coming party members have staked entire careers and livelihoods on winning, and winning as Republicans. There are only so many elective offices in rural Alabama and suburban Houston, and they cannot satisfy even a dwindling group of ambitious Republicans. They will start to show more pragmatism, perhaps get lucky, perhaps the Democrats will overplay their hand on taxes and bailouts, but they will be back: the US electoral system is built that way and big business has too much invested in the party to let it fail (just call it the Citigroup of political parties).
For some perspective, two years ago, one mainstream conservative commentator described the Democratic Party as "imploding," "meaningless" and run by "crazies." Just one national election later, Peggy Noonan looks like the fool that she is. And even though we know that it is the Republican Party that is imploding, meaningless and run by crazies, we also know better than to assume it is dead.
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