11/13/2008 03:14 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The GOP Faces Long-Term Challenge With Young and Independents

Prior to the 2008 Presidential Election, there was an incredible amount of discussion about the extent to which Senator Barack Obama's massive voter registration and turnout efforts would dramatically impact the election. Young voters and African-Americans in particular were believed to be the two groups that would deliver the Presidency to Barack Obama.

However, on election day, the proportion of young voters and African-Americans as a percentage of the electorate was not dramatically different from 2004. First-time voters made up 11% of all voters - the same as in 2004. Furthermore, the number of voters overall at the ballot box at the Presidential level was not significantly higher than turnout in 2004. (The ballots are still being tallied and recounted in some places, but I am seeing just a little over 3 million more votes this year.)

So what did it? I would argue that even though the numbers appear somewhat stagnant in the aggregate, Obama's ground game created some gains among Democrats (3.6 million more in 08 over 04), while 5 million fewer Republican voters came out (or, perhaps even worse for the GOP, many these voters likely identified as Independents - turnout among Independents was up by about 4.5 million voters). This party ID gap played a role, and this -paired with the economic collapse and a loss of the youth vote - enabled Senator Obama to overtake Senator John McCain by a wide margin, turning a host of formerly "red" states into "blue" states.

First, to the makeup of the electorate. Senator McCain's nomination as the Republican Party's candidate for President is said by some to have been the only chance the GOP had for victory in 2008. Others in the Republican Party claim that Senator McCain's moderate stances on many policies may have hurt him with the Republican base. One of the biggest questions that will face pollsters breaking down this year's exit polling - of the 5 million Republican voters who turned out in 2004 but did not show up as Repubicans in 2008, how many stayed home versus those who voted but did not identify as Republican?

Republicans fell as a proportion of the electorate, something unsurprising given the massive registration efforts waged by the Obama campaign. In the end, Democrats only went from being 37% of the electorate to 39%. This wound up being an extra 3.6 million Democrat voters. But consider that in 2004, nearly 3.9 million more Democrats came out to vote than in 2000 (in part a product of the overall increased turnout that year). Yet the GOP dropped by 5 million voters in 2008 compared to 2004. On face, it looks like the Republican Party did a far better job of scaring away its own voters than the Democrats did creating new ones, sending many formerly Republican voters to the polls only to tell exit pollsters that they consider themselves to be "independents". Those independents broke 52-44 for Obama.

Some will say that we lost the election because McCain was unable to energize the base, despite his selection of Sarah Palin for Vice President. I disagree that a more conservative candidate would have fared better in the election. In fact, it isn't so much that the "base" sat home - for instance, in 2004, 23% of the electorate identified as "white evangelical/born-again Christian". In 2008, that jumped to 26% - larger than the jump in those identifying as 18-29 (18%, up from 17% in '04) or the jump in African-American turnout (13%, up from 11% in '08).

The base didn't sit home. They came out. Many Republicans just weren't calling themselves Republicans anymore, and many weren't voting like Republicans either. This speaks more to moderates and independents fleeing the GOP than a lack of turnout on the part of the base. Take a look here at my firm's website for two instructive charts that show the trends over time (the last 24 years - not the totality of political history to be sure - but the time frame since 2002 is particularly instructive).

McCain could have fought this election in the middle and perhaps stopped or at least stifled the exodus. Instead, the McCain campaign fought a traditional turn-out-the-base campaign - a tragic failure of strategy in a year where McCain's money and organization would barely be able to keep up with the Obama juggernaut. The way to win was to appeal to independents - something that it looked like might happen following the conventions, when some polls briefly showed a glimmer of hope that the maverick narrative would take hold. Instead, the campaign was fought on a battlefield where there was little way McCain could win short of a miracle.

The big change everyone was preparing to discuss after this election was the surge in youth and African-American turnout. This change was not at all as dramatic as many expected. Additionally, the Republican base doesn't appear to have stayed home in large numbers - in fact, they may have come out better than anticipated. The big shift in the makeup of the electorate came in the decreased percentage of the electorate identifying as Republican - something that requires a great deal of attention given the usual stability of party ID. Democrats only gained another 2% of the electorate, far less than many public polls had predicted or had shown in their own party ID breaks, but this election did show that while Party ID is still "sticky", it is also malleable as a variable in elections. The GOP needs to take action - and soon - to win those Independent voters back who have strayed if it wants to improve its electoral success any time soon.

Even more troubling for Republicans should be the youth vote this year - not in terms of higher turnout, but in terms of a very high level of support for Democratic candidates at the Presidential and House level. In 2004, young voters (18-29) broke for Kerry 54%-45% and voted for Democratic House candidates 55%-44%. In 2008, those margins swung dramatically toward the Democrats - 66% for Obama vs 32% for McCain and translating down to the House level at similarly troubling margins - 63% for Democrats vs. 34% for Republicans.

Scholars have noted that early adulthood plays a key role in the creation of political generations. In 1974, Beck described that young voters are primarily responsible for the birth of electoral realignment.(1) Billingsley and Tucker (1987) follow this analysis with the claim that political generations are often defined by political events occurring during young adulthood. (2) Indeed, the generation of voters in the 18-29 age group for the 2008 election were made up of those whose young adult political life would likely have included the events of September 11th as well as the expansion of political news availability via cable news and the Internet - not to mention the entire Bush Administration. The long term impact on the GOP of this swing will be felt for years to come in young voters are not appealed to with a positive, modern agenda that speaks to their concerns - the environment, energy, the economy, education, and entitlement reform. (Perhaps there's something with the letter "e"?)

So the electorate didn't look too much different than it did in 2004. But the likelihood that members of that electorate would call themselves a Republican or that they'd vote for Republicans was dramatically different.

The other factor that put the nail in the McCain campaign's coffin was the economy. Dr. Robert Shapiro (formerly of the Clinton administration) spoke with Johns Hopkins University graduate students before the election at a symposium event and reminded the attendees of a belief held by many social scientists - that more than slogans or advertising or anything the candidates themselves say or do, factors like the current president's job approval and the economy drive elections, and that when the economy is in a recession, it becomes incredibly difficult for the party in power to hold control. Indeed, there are no shortage of charts that highlight the massive divergence in polling numbers that happened right around the day Lehman Brothers shut its doors.

When the economy is the top issue for voters, it's best to have the confidence of those who are worried about it. Unfortunately for McCain, his forte is foreign policy - not the economy. Even more unfortunately, the Democrats quickly blamed the downturn on the sorts of economic policies associated with Republicans.. Being a Republican meant losing major footing on this issue, and as stocks went down, Obama's poll numbers went up.

On election day, McCain won the whopping 7% of Americans who said the economy was "excellent" or "good". However, the 93% who said the economy was "not so good" or "poor" broke for Obama 54%-44%. The 18% who didn't think the economic crisis would hurt their family broke for McCain; the 81% who were worried broke for Obama 62%-36%. Simply put, with economic turmoil gripping the nation, the McCain campaign needed to make a strong case for why he would be the best candidate on this issue. Given the results, it appears he was unable to accomplish this. And so went the election.

The Republican Party has two major challenges that jump from these numbers that must be tackled. First, the GOP must win back the youth vote. There's little reason to believe that this year was an aberration - that young voters came out for Obama but will fade away and become apathetic in years to come. However, barring major life events, young voters who leave a pattern of habitual non-voting by voting for the first time will be carried "inertia" to continue voting in future elections. As more and more young voters go to the polls, the norms surrounding voting among that age cohort will change the social costs of voting in a way that provides positive peer reinforcement, contributing to higher turnout. (3) Furthermore, the longer the GOP waits to try to win these voters back, the harder it will be - prior study has already established that as voters age, their partisan identification grows stronger. (4)

Second, the GOP must expand their "big tent" rather than contract. There is a great debate among many right now on the Right about whether or not the McCain candidacy represented stretching too far to reach to the middle, attempting to forge such a broad coalition that nobody wound up being happy with it. I would wholeheartedly disagree with the sentiment that we'd be better off focusing on the base; in fact if the concept of the Republican "base" is not expanded and in fact the tent of the Republican Party is pulled inward, this gap in partisanship will only increase in future years.

This election was preceded by much talk of a complete realignment, a massive wave of turnout from particular voter groups and a complete repudiation of the Republican Party. While this election may not have been realigning, it is a loud and clear wake up call for the GOP. Make no mistake - the data show a number of trends that ought to be very troubling for the Republican Party. The next two to four years will be crucial to making up deficits among young and independent voters. Without progress on these two fronts, we very well may be looking at the start of a very long, dark night for Republicans at the ballot box.

*Overall turnout figures compiled from CNN. As ballots from 2008 are still being counted, these numbers are obviously subject to vary.

1) Beck, Paul. (1974). A socialization theory of partisan realignments. In Richard Niemi and associates (eds.), The Politics of Future Citizens. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
2) Billingsley, K., & Tucker, C. (1987). Generations, Status and Party Identification: A Theory of Operant Conditioning. Political Behavior, 9(4), 305-322
3)Plutzer, E. (2002). Becoming a habitual voter: inertia, resources, and growth in young adulthood. American Political Science Review, 96(1), pp 41-56.
4)Claggett, W. (1981). Partisan acquisition versus partisan identity: life-cycle, generation, and period effects, 1952-1976. American Journal of Political Science, 25(2), pp 193-214. and Campbell, A., Converse, P., Miller, W., and Stokes, D. (1960). The American voter. New York; Wiley.