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Back to the Bush Coalition

Where have we seen this majority before?

Nov 15, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 09 • By JAY COST
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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. 

Back to the Bush Coalition

Photo Credit: Gary Locke

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. 

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