The Republican Future

Published February 25, 2009

As conservatives gather this weekend for the first Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference since the 2008 debacle, they need to consider one fact as they contemplate rebuilding the movement and party. Understanding this fact will help them meet their political challenge.

The fact: 42% of John McCain’s vote came from white evangelical or born-again Christians.

That’s right: according to the exit poll, 26% of the electorate is white evangelicals, and 74% of them voted for McCain. McCain pulled slightly less than 46% of the vote, so about four-in-ten of McCain’s voters were white evangelicals.

To put it in perspective, white evangelicals are nearly twice as important to Republicans as African-Americans are for Democrats. Despite the surge in African-American turnout and the record high percentage Obama received from those voters, blacks comprised only 23% of the winning coalition.

This documents what people have long suspected: the white evangelical community is now the Republican Party’s base. And it creates the challenge all conservatives and Republicans need to answer, how to build a stable majority coalition by building on that base.

It’s tempting to think one can throw that base away and start anew. But that’s not how politics works. Every stable, new political coalition builds upon an existing party base rather than start from ground zero. Indeed, FDR’s New Deal coalition did not reject the Solid South; he added Catholic and African-American voters from the GOP and built a majority that lasted nearly 40 years.

Ronald Reagan followed FDR’s playbook. He did not reject the shrunken GOP base of the mid-1970s. Instead, in his landmark speech before the 1977 CPAC convention, he argued for a “New Republican Party” in which the GOP base among economic conservatives would be supplemented with new votes among social conservatives.

Three years later, his vision was vindicated as Republican bastions in high-income and northern Protestant neighborhoods were joined by the “Reagan Democrats”–middle-class, Catholic suburbanites, conservative white Southerners, and a larger share of the Jewish and Latino vote. This majority coalition lasted over a decade, and formed the base for the historic 1994 Congressional takeover.

Obama’s attempt to create a new Democratic majority operates on a similar “build up, not tear down” strategy. Obama is finding ways to add moderate upper-income, educated whites of moderate-to-no religious persuasion to the Democratic base of racial minorities, labor union members, and progressive and secular whites. Conservatives and Republicans must think similarly if they hope to regain the majority.

Adding to the base does not mean that white evangelicals must continue to vote 74% Republican. Reagan’s conservative strategy reduced the GOP strength among traditional Republicans, as some voted first for John Anderson and ultimately became Democrats. But the loss of share among traditional GOPers was more than made up by the newcomers.

There are many ways to rebuild that majority by adapting Reagan’s 1977 playbook to the modern playing field. Conservatives can compete with Obama and the Democrats for votes among the mass educated affluent. Such an attempt could focus on social issues that unite people of various religious persuasions and economic issues that emphasize limiting government’s growth while reforming the public sector to make it more responsive to individual needs.

They can also try to add working class Catholics and members of other faiths to the white evangelical base. A move in this direction could emphasize social issues that unite these disparate faiths and, crucially, use rhetoric that is cross-denominational. It would also require greater openness to the economic worries of the lower-middle and working classes, which include high payroll and property taxes and stagnant formal wages (rising health care costs are soaking up these workers’ productivity gains).

Conservatives can also court the growing non-white portion of the electorate. This group is split between lower-skilled Latino workers and higher-skilled Asian immigrants, making the task complicated. But whatever the economic and social issues such outreach would employ, it will be difficult to make a serious play for these voters with an immigration platform that is perceived as restrictionist and exclusionary.

Each of these targets of opportunity presents challenges. But the challenge was no less for FDR as he built a coalition including blacks yearning for freedom and white segregationists, prohibitionist Baptists and wet Catholics looking for a good beer.

Recovery starts when denial stops. Republicans and conservatives who want to regain majority status must recognize that today’s party base is different from the one Reagan built upon, and this fact shapes the contours of the coalitions they can build. The sooner they accept that fact, the sooner they can meet that challenge.

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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