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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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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.

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