Conservatives and Republicans should have two takeaways from Tuesday’s election. First, they may comprise the single largest faction in American politics, but they do not comprise a clear majority. Second, if they want to gain a majority, they need to listen to people who rejected them to find out why.
The conservative and Republican challenge can be summed up in one question from the exit polls. The pollsters asked voters which of four characteristics they most wanted to see in their president. Mitt Romney won among voters who chose three of those characteristics: shares my values, is a strong leader and has a vision for the future. What’s more, he carried them heavily, by between nine and 23 points. In all, 79 percent of voters selected one of these characteristics.
Romney lost because he lost among those who chose the remaining characteristic – by 63 points, 81-18. That characteristic? Cares about people like me.
The entire Obama campaign was designed to tell swing voters that Romney and the Republicans did not care about them. You’re a single woman? They oppose your use of contraception – they don’t care about you. Hispanic voter? They oppose immigration reform and even oppose the DREAM Act – they don’t care about you.
In 2010, the Canadian Conservative party destroyed the Liberal Party, which had dominated politics for 80 years, by tarring its leader as out of touch. That man, Michael Ignatieff, was a famous academic who returned to Canada to run for office. Tory ads ended brutally and succinctly: He didn’t come back for you.
Democrats ran an equally brutal and succinct campaign against Romney and the Republicans: They aren’t running for you.
That message resonated with what the Democrats call the Rising American Electorate: Hispanics, young voters, single women and Asians. They voted for Obama and Democrats in record proportions. It also resonated with blue-collar whites. As Sean Trende pointed out on Real Clear Politics, it looks like 8 million fewer whites voted in 2012 than in 2008. I believe analysis will show they were disproportionately middle or working-class voters outside the South.
Conservatives can come back from this. Our values and principles are in line with the values and aspirations these voters share. But we must admit that behind a successful caricature is a kernel of truth.
The Republican Party was founded in opposition to slavery, but it was also founded in support of the idea that government can give average people a hand up to achieve the American Dream. The Homestead Act gave farmers settling the territories free federal land if they put it to good use – a subsidy. The Morrill Land Grant College Act gave states federal land to establish a university to study agricultural research – a subsidy for the tens of millions of farmers who dominated mid-19th century America.
Americans of all shades and sexes still want that vision. They don’t want a government that is “hands on” in their lives, regulating, taxing and commanding their every move.
When they need help, they don’t want handouts, and they don’t think others should get them either, whether titans of Wall Street or moms on welfare. And they don’t want government to be simply “hands off.”
How do conservatives and Republicans appeal to them? Endorse the DREAM Act. Replace the ritual invocation of “Judeo-Christian values” as a shorthand for “shared moral culture” with inclusive language that recognizes that Americans who do not worship a Western God (most Asians) or who pray to no God (a fifth of voters under 25, a tenth of all voters) are part of our moral culture, too.
Talk less about how much we will cut and more about what we will do with the programs we support. Don’t divide America into makers and takers.
Americans want what conservatives have always said they want to give them, a hand up. A conservative movement and Republican Party that recalls itself to the better angels of its nature will find an eager populace, and electoral success.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.