Political Animal


April 04, 2013 11:57 AM The Fundamentals and the Direction of the GOP

By Ed Kilgore

A big part of the political discussion this year has revolved around a debate in GOP circles about what if anything the Republican Party can do to overcome its losing ways. Much of the debate has revolved around a majority position that technology, “outreach,” and perhaps a strategic shift on a few demographically important issues like immigration and marriage equality would do the trick, and a minority faction arguing that something more thoroughgoing was in order. And then there was a third camp, which I strongly suspect is under-represented in the MSM, that believes additional purges of party “moderates,” and a more rigorous stance of ideological purity and partisan differentiation, is in order.

But now we are seeing some pushback from political scientists and political-science-influenced writers arguing that all this talk misses the overriding importance of the fundamentals, especially short-term economic trends and enduring party identification patterns, that no matter of technology, ideology, strategic positioning on “the issues,” candidate quality, or campaign tactics could have significantly changed. Some of this talk will serve as a healthy corrective to the usual Beltway over-interpretation of elections as reflecting the refusal of political actors to take elite advice or seize “game change” moments. I strongly suspect, however, that the net effect of the poli sci backlash will be to reinforce habits of inertia in the GOP, or even strengthen conservatives who think a further “shift to the right” on issues and messaging can boost “base” voting without exacting any cost among swing voters who hardly pay attention to anything going on in campaigns.

The first “fundamentalist” broadside was fired by George Washington University’s John Sides (founder of that very useful poli sci popularizing site The Monkey Cage) at WaPo Wonkblog. You should read the whole thing, but its essence was to stress that Obama’s win was predictable according to economy-based forecasting models, and that voters, as opposed to pundits, didn’t share the virtually unanimous impression of the experts that Mitt Romney was snared by a right-tilting primary competition that left him dangerously exposed in the general election.

Sides does warn that his analysis should not be used to argue that it’s impossible for Republicans to lose votes by appearing too “extreme,” but there’s little doubt that’s exactly how it will be interpreted by many conservatives fighting any sort of significant ideological reboot.

Also at WaPo, Jonathan Bernstein focused on the very specific and perennial question as to whether “issues” matter that much to voters. Like most political scientists, he took the “not so much” position:

The key, I think, is just to focus on party identification as by far the most important factor in vote choice. Basically, people who think of themselves as Republicans are going to vote for Republican candidates, and it’s relatively difficult to push them off of that. Sure, it’s possible. But single issues, even multiple single issues, are unlikely to do the trick.
The exception would be single issues which are powerful enough for individuals that they break the bonds of party. But for that, it doesn’t really matter how the population in general feels about an issue, even at the 90 percent level; what matters, presumably (and I don’t think we have a lot of studies on this) is whether that particular issue is so central to one’s political identity that it overrides habit and loyalty. And most issues, for most of us, aren’t anywhere close to that.

Whether that’s true or not (and yes, the evidence suggests it is at least up to a point), this analysis will also comfort those in the GOP who believe they can play a double-game of stressing (or at least dog-whistling) radical issue positions to the “base” voters who do care about this stuff without the rest of the electorate much noticing.

Finally, today, Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics, who wars regularly against “realignment” theories from every direction (particularly demographic predictions of an enduring Democratic advantage), takes up the “fundamentalist” cudgels to argue that partisan voting patterns are exceptionally stable and that wins or losses are mostly attributable to bad timing and partisan responsibility for wars and recessions, rather than demographic trends or issues positioning:

While it’s true that Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, we should also be able to agree that, given the state of the economy and difficulty in winning three consecutive terms (much less four), that Republicans really shouldn’t have won in 1992, 1996, and 2008. Truth be told, they had no business making 2000 as close as they did. Structural factors favored the Democrats in 2012 as well.
Though we can try to explain this in terms of demographics, the simpler explanation is that these elections pretty much turned out how we’d expect without any reference to demographics; Republicans have simply ended up on the wrong side of the coin toss (much as Democrats often did from 1952 to 1988, which are also largely explained by wars and the economy). In terms of the House, Republicans overperformed on the fundamentals in 1994, 2002, and 2010, while underperforming slightly in 1998 and substantially in 2006. We simply aren’t seeing the types of surprising Democratic wins we’d expect from a massive demographic shift.
Instead, we’re seeing is what we’ve seen over the past 80 years: Short-term contingencies occasionally give one party or the other the edge, but a clear tendency exists to revert back to the mean of a 50/50 nation. This tendency has continued irrespective of party self-identification. Maybe it will change in the future, but we haven’t seen much evidence of it yet.

Sean does not, unfortunately, address the issue of whether ideology has a crucial influence on the emergence of the wars and recessions that make up so large a part of the “fundamentals.” I mean, the real, external world doesn’t always operate independently of the political actors who seek to influence it, even if they aren’t as omnipotent as we sometimes imagine.

The broader issue, in my informed but amateur opinion, is whether debates over party performance in elections can find a happy medium between remorseless “fundamentals” doctrines that happen (ironically) to strengthen the hands of ideological warriors who believe they are free to seek to reshape the world according to their fevered imaginations without electoral consequences, and Politico-style “game change” narratives that also enable ideologues by suggesting money, tactics, candidate personalities, and campaign “events” could elect Mussolini if the worm turns right on the crucial day.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on April 04, 2013 12:38 PM:

    Mussolini is bad enough, but he's not the one I'm worried about.
    And I suspect you know who I'm talking about.

    The Republicans will continue to try to wedge voters their way by continuing to be as much about God, Gays, Guns, and Gynocologist visitors, as they can, without completely alienating EVERYONE. With, of course, as much racism and xenophobia they can dog-whistle past the cowardly, complicit, and compliant, MSM.

    I look at what been happening in NC over the last few months as a bellweather for what will happen if Republicans grab total control of the Federal Government – they will do their best to pass, ASAP, their antediluvian, Nihilistic, and crypto-Fascist Evangelical Christian/John Birch agenda, onto the rest of the country.

    We dodged a bullet last year – thankfully, by more than a razor’s edge, which should give us normal people, some hope.

    At this point, Republicans are like an alcoholic or drug addict, who’s at the point where only more and more of the pure, and ever purer, stuff, will keep them “happy,” and at an “even” keel.

    Hopefully, if our cowardly, compliant, and complicit MSM ever decides to make a point of Republican extremism, then maybe more than just us Liberals on the internet will notice.
    John and Jane Q. Public are oblivious to most of the Republican extremism.
    And if they're aware of it at all, the MSM has already told them that the Democratic left is just as extreme as the Republican right.
    THAT needs to change.

    But pardon me if I don’t hold my breath.

    As I’ve noted before, we’re living in the ear of the ancient Chinese curse – “May you live in interesting times.

    I’d prefer dull and boring, thank you very much.

    Just not THEIR version of dull and boring - which is a combo of ruthlessly instilled comformity, as if "1984" met "A Handmaid's Tale."

  • T2 on April 04, 2013 12:43 PM:

    so many factors, but those who overlook basic, historical, tenets of GOPers/Conservatives/TeaPartyiers...whatever you want to call them, miss the point. These people are white, and much more religiously driven (of course, having their leaders engage in adultery,etc. can always be forgiven). You can talk "fundamentals" or economics or "bad communication" or bad candidates or what have you, but there is one national party that excludes any but the white race, and another that includes all races. There is one that demands, at least publicly, strict adherence to the Christian Bible, and another that has a wider tent.
    The Republican Party won't change much, if any. They are a minority now and are holding on mainly due to their hard-line views and, in truth, due to the gerrymandering they put in place during the Bush years. Relax either and they'll dissolve into a puddle. The nation has already moved on past them.

  • Mimikatz on April 04, 2013 1:04 PM:

    It is clear that political allegiances formed when one is coming of age can endure for decades. The most Democratic cohorts are those who came of age in the years just after WWII, when they benefitted from government programs that helped them, and people who first voted in 2008 and 2012. The most GOP came of age under Reagan. It isn't just wars and recessions but government responses to them. Reagan seemed to be a strong leader after the bad economic times in the late '70s and early '80s, until it all unraveled under Bush I. GOP mismanagement culminating in the many debacles of 2005-6 brought the Dems back.

    Were it not for GOP obstruction, strategies to minimize the votes of young people and minorities, and the built-in advantages for less populated areas exacerbated by clustering of Dem voters, the GOP would have gone the way of the California GOP. As we experience more disasters (check the Argentine floods as a preview) and gov't remains paralyzed, it is hard to weenie the GOP outlives it's aging white base as long as we remain a nominal democracy.

  • Mimikatz on April 04, 2013 1:08 PM:

    It is hard to anticipate iPad's eccentricity, but I think that was meant to be "hard to see how the GOP" outlives it's base.

  • Gandalf on April 04, 2013 1:11 PM:

    These writers astound me. I would agree that some of what they're saying makes sense.i.e. that party affiliation is like loyalty to a pro football team but if issues don't matter to people why do politicians spend so much time positioning themselves on them? And if the republican party bases it's loyalty on orienting itself to fooling their base with a watch the monkey approach by throwing the culture war smoke and mirrors up to hide their agenda of increasing the wealth and power of the rich then they will surely dissipate as a force in american politics as their easily fooled base gets older and older.

  • CRhetts on April 04, 2013 1:16 PM:

    I agree mostly with what T2 says. The differences between conservatives and liberals these days can best be understood when looked at through the lens of race and culture, as opposed to political ideology.

    Rather than accept the potential of a changing social dynamic to benefit us all, what we're seeing is a white culture steadily losing control and trying desparately to turn back the clock.

    Where liberals get it wrong is to perceive the conservative drift further and further towards the finge is guided by any kind of consistant or coherent political philosophy.

    I think we all would be surprised, if not shocked, by the number of policies which modern day conservatives consider to be toxic, anti-American, "socialistic", or all three - yet which virtually originated in the Republican party before it went off the rails.

    All this bluff and bluster about limited government, lower taxes and personal liberty - is nothing more than a smoke screen for the delusive strategy of restoring white culture to the position of privilege it held 60 years ago.

    Sorry - ain't gonna happen.

  • c u n d gulag on April 04, 2013 1:36 PM:

    Folks, I'm warning you - don't bury them yet.

    They're liabe to spring, like Jason, back to life, and terrorize us some more.

    Don't discount voter suppression and disenfranchisement.
    That, and the economy continuing to improve very, very slowly, if at all, or, as they really hope, plummet, could leave them in the position of grabbing power in 2016.

    Either that, or what they'd consider the answer to their fevered prayers, that most blessed of events, another catastrophic terrorist attach in America on Obama's watch.

    And then, as I said earlier, they will pass laws that will leave them in power for, if not the forseeable future, at least for as long as possible, to do the most amount of damage.

    This is the Republican Party, it is the Christo-Fascist-Bircher Nihilist Party.

  • Th on April 04, 2013 2:52 PM:

    One thing that is changing is the perception that there isn't much difference between the parties. Many of us were certain Carter's loss to Reagan would change America, but it really didn't. The New Deal and Great Society programs continued on, just underfunded. That led to a lot of complacency in 2000 when all I heard from liberal friends was how there wasn't enough difference between Gore and Bush to care. We know now how much difference there really is and the unengaged are starting to realize it too.

  • c u n d gulag on April 04, 2013 3:35 PM:

    The election of 1980 most certainly DID change America.

    Just one snap-shot: imagine a more Liberal SCOTUS - probably with Sandra Day O'conner, possibly Kennedy, but without Scalia.

    Reagan accelerated the devolution started by Nixon, and we've been going downhill ever since - and with George W. Bush, it seemed like we jumped out of perfectly good plane, without a parachute.

    Now, it's possible that, had Carter won, George H.W. Bush might have been elected in 1984, and reelected in 1988, but he was more of a pragmatist in the Ike mode, than Reagan, who was an idealogue, more along the lines of Goldwater.

    Sorry, but that election DID have consequences!

  • Mimikatz on April 04, 2013 4:16 PM:

    Carter's loss to Reagan changed America irrevocably. That's when the counterreformation really got going. One of Reagan's first acts was to take the solar panels off the White House roof. Do you think we would be facing climate disaster in 2 decades if not sooner with a second Carter term and/or Gore winning in 2000? Not all Great Society programs continued. Most if the community action and employment ones ended, Head Start was always underfunded, and health care reform took another 30 years to come about even in a truncated form. Reproductive rights have been under steady attack and have begun to disappear in some places. Sure, it didn't happen overnight, but it was the begging of the revival of greed and selfishness as virtues and the mainstream demonizing of the public interest and environmental protection and similar concepts as a communist plot. For many of us it was the real beginning of the end of America as a land of promise.

  • DisgustedWithItAll on April 04, 2013 8:36 PM:

    The election that sealed America's doom and capitulation to the right for good was in 2008. That's when America got taken for a ride, and gave the country completely over to the right.

    There's never been a more successful Republican president than Barack Obama.

    Next victories for the right:
    - Obama approves Keystone XL
    - Obama proposes -- not agrees to, but actively proposes as his initial bargaining -- entitlement cuts.

    The man is in cartoon territory at this point. And you know it.

  • janinsanfran on April 04, 2013 9:02 PM:

    Come on -- if nothing mattered but "fundamentals," the NorthEast would still be full of Republicans. It isn't. There's some ideological content to changes in party preference, even if not everything.

  • Th on April 05, 2013 11:04 AM:

    OK, OK, I agree with both of you on the actual impact which is the point I have been trying to make since the '80's. My point above was that the general perception of the Republican party as wanting government to do all it does now but more efficiently (WASTE, FRAUD AND ABUSE) is finally being replaced. Therefore, I don't think the "fundamentals" will account for the realignment when agendas are much clearer to voters.

    Were any of you really surprised to learn that focus group participants in 2012 refused to believe Republicans would support proposals they had already voted for in congress? Do you think they will still be in denial in 2016?