The story of last week’s midterm battle is clear: It was an election about President Barack Obama, and the American people voted against him. According to the exit polls, voters nationwide disapproved of the president’s performance by a 9-point margin, 45-54 percent, and while their impressions of the Republican party were generally negative, they nevertheless gave the GOP what should turn out to be at least a 7-point margin of victory in the popular vote for the House. This was less than the final preelection polls had predicted, but it nevertheless amounts to the largest Republican margin of victory in the popular vote for the House since 1946. It should be good for a net gain of 63 or 64 seats in the lower chamber.
The exit polls indicate that voters were dissatisfied with the way Washington has done business since Barack Obama became president. Dissatisfaction was not limited to the sluggish pace of economic recovery. Voters also disapproved of the health care bill, the stimulus package, and the level of deficit spending; they expressed a sense that government has become too big and too intrusive.
More than half of all voters said that President Obama’s policies will “hurt the country,” and the general impression left by the reams of exit poll cross tabs is that in 2010, the American people agree with Ronald Reagan’s declaration, “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” Despite their disapproval of the Republican party, voters disliked the Democratic party enough to give the GOP another chance.
None of this is much of a surprise, except to those who refused to believe the rebuke was coming. Pollsters Scott Rasmussen, Pat Caddell, and Doug Schoen have been warning Democrats for some time that the midterms would be calamitous for them. Liberals ignored them during the campaign, and many will continue to do so, preferring to see the results as a consequence of the irrational wrath of voters who wrongly punished the Democrats for the failures of the Bush administration. The “Democratic” label has become an ironic appellation, as this “bitter/cling” explanation for voter opposition has taken hold on the left.
The midterm results also revealed that some longstanding alignments are still in place. Again, this might come as a surprise to liberals who mistook Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 for the beginning of a new, enduring Democratic majority. The 2010 midterms proved that their interpretation was wrong. The midterm battle revealed that the “Bush majority” is still alive and well—and strong enough to sweep the Republican party to its largest House majority in several generations.
As Republicans position themselves for the battles of the 112th Congress as well as the upcoming presidential campaign, it is critical that they understand the precise nature of their political coalition, for the Bush majority has both important strengths and dangerous weaknesses, both of which were on display last week.
First, a note on terminology. This is indeed the Bush majority, not the Reagan majority, and it looks nothing like any previous Republican coalition.
George W. Bush is the first Republican in history to win an election without a single electoral vote from the Northeast, the historic base of the Republican party. Indeed, Bush’s victories in 2000 and 2004 looked quite a bit like the coalitions Democrats used to build prior to the New Deal—uniting the South and the West, with a handful of Midwestern swing states. George W. Bush is himself the symbol of his coalition. Its base is in the South, but not the Old South of plantations, poverty, and Jim Crow; rather, the New South, a center of industry, commerce, and growth. Its core voters are not the old Jacksonians who trace their lineage deep in Southern history, but Northern transplants who came to Dixie to make something of themselves, just as the Bush family did.
The most notable strength of this coalition is its breadth. Conservatives pointed with pride to maps of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections showing the vast geographical scope of the Bush appeal—huge seas of red with only a few blue pockets. Democrats would counter that those red spaces are mostly empty, but that isn’t true. In fact, George W. Bush won more than 240 congressional districts in 2000 even though he lost the popular vote, and he won more than 250 districts in 2004. In both contests, he won a comfortable majority of the 50 states.
Though the 2010 midterms produced the largest Republican House majority in almost 70 years, it is not quite right to call this majority historic, as it is really just a consolidation of the Bush vote. Of the 67 Democratic-held congressional districts where Republicans won or, as of this writing, were leading in the count, Bush received on average 55 percent of the vote in 2004. Bush defeated Kerry in 57 of these districts.
In other words, the GOP won last week essentially by convincing Bush voters to pull the lever once again for Republican congressional candidates. And for all the mythology about Barack Obama’s political charisma and academic brilliance, this is a possibility that he and his advisers apparently overlooked as they plotted the first half of his presidency. Their congressional majority depended entirely on districts that had backed George W. Bush in two close elections, and it was a terrible idea to push left-wing legislation repellent to the ticket-splitters who had empowered congressional Democrats in the first place.
Over time, the Bush majority could very easily come to dominate Congress. The GOP lost its majority because of “black swan” events—a war going badly in 2006 and a catastrophic economic collapse right before the 2008 election—but the essentials are still there for Republican control of both chambers over the long run. The structure of congressional elections favors broad coalitions such as the Bush majority, and that bodes well for the future of the Republican party and the conservative movement.
It’s not all sunshine and roses for Republicans, however. While the GOP did amazingly well in Southern and Midwestern congressional districts last week, winning most of the toss-up races and surprising the Democrats in a few districts, Republicans managed just two pickups in the Pacific West and two in New England, losing most of the toss-ups and even a few races where they were favored. This lackluster performance is strongly reminiscent of the Bush years. While the 43rd president built a broad electoral coalition, many voters who did not participate in it—so-called “Blue Staters,” usually in the Northeast and on the West Coast—felt deeply alienated from it. And while President Obama is not terribly popular in either region, voters there are still not prepared to swing behind the Republican party.
Of course, intense opposition is not necessarily a problem for a political coalition. Delegates to the 1928 Republican National Convention cheered loudly for Herbert Hoover, but that didn’t stop the Democrats from winning six of the next eight presidential elections. And while they will never admit it, all political parties develop programs that make winners out of some voters and losers out of others. Firm, even strident opposition is to be expected.
The problem for Republicans is that while the Bush coalition is broader than its opposition, it is not nearly as firm. Thus, when the support of Bush voters falters, liberal Democrats are fully prepared to make the most of it. This was a key factor in the undoing of the GOP’s congressional majority in 2006. Gore/Kerry voters were strongly opposed to George W. Bush as early as 2003. Intensity, however, is not enough in elections where everybody gets one vote, so Bush and the Republicans could hold the line. But when the war effort slipped, the Bush coalition weakened, and its highly motivated opponents were there to seize the advantage.
Unfortunately for the Republicans, something like this happened in the Nevada and Colorado Senate races last week, where Democrats Harry Reid and Michael Bennet hung on by slender margins. These are both states that George W. Bush carried twice. This year, the Republicans won the popular vote for the House in both states, but lost critically important Senate contests. The reason was terribly weak candidates whom the Democrats successfully labeled as extreme. This was sufficient to scare just enough of the Bush vote away to deliver victory to the Democrats. In both Nevada and Colorado, the county by county returns tell exactly the same story: The Democrats’ firm bases came in strong, while the Republican-leaning areas did not lean Republican enough. Even though President Obama’s job approval was negative in both states, his allies won reelection to the Senate.
What’s more, this pattern was not confined to Colorado and Nevada, although these states were the most prominent examples. If we consider President Obama’s current job approval and President Bush’s 2004 vote, it is fair to say that Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, and even John Kasich in Ohio underperformed reasonable expectations for 2010. On the other side of the coin, Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, Mark Kirk in Illinois, Rob Portman in Ohio, and Dino Rossi in Washington overperformed.
The lesson here is that, while the Bush coalition remains a potential majority alliance, it is an unstable one. It requires a solid messenger, one whose appeal is too broad for him or her to be damaged by the Democrats’ predictable accusation of extremism. Republicans need to bear this in mind as they begin to deliberate over the party’s nominee for president in 2012. They need to ask themselves whether each contender is sufficiently conservative to be a good steward of both the government and the Republican brand, but they also must ask whether each can articulate the conservative message in a way that resonates with a broad cross-section of the American people.
Perhaps the best metaphor is the political alignment of the decades after the Civil War. The Republicans were the majority party, but barely. Most elections were close-fought, and economic downturns easily swept the Democrats into the congressional majority. Yet the Republicans won most presidential battles during this period because they nominated politically attractive candidates—typically from Midwestern swing states—who satisfied all factions within the party without scaring off swing voters.
Republicans need to do something like this in 2012. They should expect a tough, down-to-the-wire battle with President Obama, one where Midwestern swing voters will again determine the outcome. What they will need to win is a candidate in whom the conservative base has confidence, but who does not scare off those marginal Bush voters who have been deciding elections for a decade. If they can find such a candidate, Barack Obama and his Democratic party will be in a great deal of trouble. If they can’t, then Obama might very well be reelected in 2012, just as Reid and Bennet were last week, by default.
Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.