The Magazine

The 3.6 Percent Republicans

The GOP needs McCain Democrats to win.

Feb 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 21 • By JOHN J. DILULIO JR.
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Even given another candidate as popular with evangelicals as Bush, there is simply not much more electoral juice left to be squeezed from the evangelical orange. The exception would be the fast-growing evangelical Latino population represented by groups like Esperanza USA, and encompassing Latino churches and fraternal organizations by the thousands. President Bush made measurable electoral inroads with that population, but those gains have evaporated for Republicans. The GOP's hard-line rhetoric on immigration, and its failure to deliver big on federal aid for faith-based initiatives, has alienated even religiously conservative Latino leaders.

None other than John McCain keeps asserting that Republicans lost in 2006 because they stopped strictly adhering to conservative orthodoxy by succumbing to Washington's overspending ways. This claim may warm some very conservative hearts, but total yearly federal spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has averaged in the low twenties since Reagan was president, and the annual nondefense discretionary spending that conservatives especially love to hate rose only from 3.2 percent of GDP in 1999 to 3.8 percent of GDP in 2006. Surveys indicate that most Republicans who voted for Democrats or simply stayed home in 2006 were not focused on overspending or overtaxing. Nor were they particularly upset with the GOP over social issues or support for traditional values.

Rather, as the ANES and other surveys showed, most voters, including many Republicans, were disenchanted with Bush's Iraq policies and generally worried that the country was moving in the wrong direction. Plus, the Democrats finally woke up and ran some less decidedly liberal candidates, including a few pro-life Democrats, in key races. In December 2007, Gallup surveys found voters giving Democrats the edge on four out of five issues that mattered most to them: health, taxes, the economy, and Iraq. The only issue on which voters favored Republicans was terrorism.

McCain is probably the only Republican who can win as Reagan did. In 1980, in a three-man race, Reagan won 26 percent of Democrats and 30 percent of independents. In 1984, in a two-man race, he won 26 percent of Democrats again, plus 63 percent of independents. Nor did Reagan by any means always govern from the right. He often wisely bent his sincerely held conservative principles in order to get a legislative half-loaf, a partial regulatory rollback, and so on.

I was not a Reagan Democrat, but every one of my six closest lifelong friends--each, like me, born a working-class Catholic and raised as a Democrat in the 1960s and 1970s in Philadelphia--was. I have the "liberal egghead" teasing scars to prove it. But, reflecting national trends, half voted for Kerry in 2004, and all but one voted Democratic in 2006.

So, finally, an unscientific survey: All my ex-Reagan Democrat buddies like McCain best because he is a war hero, because he seems strong on national defense, and because he looks the part. They all say that they will vote for him if he is the Republican nominee.

The 2008 presidential election may turn on whether the GOP can win back independents, and on whether my friends and millions more like them become McCain Democrats. Many other general election scenarios remain possible. But in this exceptionally weird election year, witnessing the not-so-vast right-wing conspiracy McCain-bash its way to a third Clinton term would win the prize for irony.

John J. DiIulio Jr. is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.