Beware Liberals Bearing Gifts
Elections can be hard to predict, though thanks to more sophisticated and voluminous polling data and the greater reliance on statistical analysis afforded by it, it has gotten much easier. But what has always been easy is predicting how liberals will respond to a Republican defeat — with self-serving offers of ill-conceived advice for how Republicans can turn it around. Republicans, conservatives and advocates of limited government should beware these liberals bearing gifts.
It’s hard to miss all the media and liberal hand-wringing over the plight of the Republican Party. Conservatism can’t win, they say. Abandon your limited government principles and start pandering more to voters, they say. Ezra Klein summed up this latest bout of liberal pundit group-think when he said that “the substantive and coalitional commitments of the modern Republican Party need to be rethought,” otherwise “it will be a disaster for the Republican Party.”
I’m no campaign strategist and I don’t work for the Republican Party, but I do want to see strong advocates of limited government and free markets elected, so I have one word for the liberal experts who seem to have all the answers for how to form a winning coalition on the right — malarkey!
If liberals truly believed that Republicans would lose without heeding their expert advice, why would they even bother offering it? Don’t they want Republicans to lose? The truth is that they are afraid of conservatism because conservatism wins. Their only hope is to convince advocates of limited government not to run, and they’ll use every tool in their media and pop culture arsenal to make sure that happens.
Liberal commentators are pointing to the election results as proof that the electorate has shifted to the left, suggesting that a failure on the part of Republicans to do the same will result in permanent minority status. The evidence hardly sustains this conclusion.
Barack Obama and Woodrow Wilson are the only presidents elected to a second term with a lower Electoral College total than their first. The vast majority of the electorate shifted to the right between 2008 and 2012, and in barely squeaking out a popular vote victory the president was unable to match the vote for President Bush when he was re-elected in 2004, despite having a voting-age electorate over 20 million citizens larger. In fact, when looking at the Democratic share of the electoral vote as a percentage of the voting-age population over time, the idea that 2012 cemented an insurmountable new liberal or progressive majority is revealed as pure fantasy.
When President Obama was swept into office in 2008, it marked the only time in the last generation that Democrats received votes from a larger share of the voting-age population than in 1976. Tuesday’s result, however, marked a return of Democratic support to even less than pre-Obama levels.
What this data in particular highlights is the importance of turnout. Who turns out to vote and who does not is just as important, and perhaps even more so, than winning the support of swing voters. The Obama campaign clearly understood and took advantage of this fact. Key demographics for President Obama — in particular minority and younger voters — turned out higher in swing states than in non-swing states, suggesting that they were driven to the polls by the president’s impressive campaign apparatus and well-established ground game. While that is a testament to his campaign and its workers, it hardly suggests a national ideological shift. Moreover, this strategy is heavily dependent upon the characteristics of Obama himself and is unlikely to carry over for future Democratic candidates. Senior Obama adviser David Plouffe acknowledged on the campaign’s final conference call that, “you can’t transfer this [ground game],” and also that, “the only reason why this happened on the ground in 2008 and 2012” was the “relationship between [Obama voters] and our candidate.”
Mitt Romney, meanwhile, failed to connect with voters, and in particular to convince advocates of limited government that the GOP again deserved their enthusiastic support after eight years of profligate spending and expansionary government under Bush. The exit polls showed that Romney’s supporters were less likely than the president’s to express unreserved support for their candidate, and were also more likely to suggest they were voting against a candidate instead of for one. And while 51% said that “government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals” — another sign that Republicans should not adopt more big-government positions to attract voters — Mitt Romney was only able to attract 74% of these voters. That the president got 24% of the vote from those who think that government is doing too much is an indictment of Romney’s campaign and demonstrates a clear failure to win the major arguments of the day.
Faulting Romney alone for this failure, however, is probably unfair. He and his campaign did about as well as they could with what they had to work with. He just wasn’t the right man for the job. He was a Northeastern moderate Republican, with a nice family and a history of kindness, who nevertheless was stuck trying to speak a conservative language that he didn’t fully understand and with which he wasn’t entirely comfortable. Unsurprisingly, it showed and voters weren’t convinced. It was only through the complete incompetence, overwhelming baggage and just generally unacceptable condition of every other Republican primary candidate that he inherited the nomination, and he did with it about as much as could reasonably be expected.
It’s certainly true that demographic groups which today vote strongly for Democrats are growing as a share of the population. So far that has not produced the kind of new heights in the Democratic vote that would preclude the possibility of future conservative victories. Nor are party preferences by any means static. There is little reason to believe that conservatism well argued and articulated cannot appeal to these demographics. In fact, there is plenty of support for conservative principles amongst the black and Hispanic communities in particular. That conservatives should find ways to demonstrate how the consistent application of their principles are to the benefit of all, including members of these groups, is just plain old common sense.
What Republicans and conservatives don’t need to do is abandon the principles of limited government and adopt the kind of pandering and demographic-vote-buying schemes used by Democrats — who have a smaller ideological base upon which to draw from, and who thus must rely upon more creative coalition-building efforts. Liberal pundits who suggest otherwise either don’t know what they are talking about or, as is more likely the case, are trying to convince Republicans to preemptively surrender. I can’t really blame them — given half a chance that it might work I’d similarly try to convince statists to adopt without a fight my views for shrinking government, cutting spending and freeing markets.
The challenge for advocates of smaller government is that liberalism is easy. It’s not at all hard to convince people that government should help them or give them something seemingly for nothing. It’s much harder to convey the more subtle understanding that such efforts often create many more problems than they solve, and that there really is no such thing as a free lunch. This is why it is all the more important for Republicans to pick candidates both well versed in conservative thought and capable of connecting with and educating the electorate.
The good news is that there are several capable choices on the horizon. It would be a major mistake for the Republican Party to preemptively cut them off and run toward the left before they have a chance to make a principled case to the American people.