It seems like this is the third time I have written this article: What happened to Republicans and where do they go from here? I wrote a similar piece for The Seattle Times after becoming state Party chair in 2001, and once again, here, after the debacle of 2006. Then as, now, the key lies with voters I call secular suburban moderates.
It is clear by now that Republicans have lost their grip on the suburbs. According to exit polls, Obama won the suburban vote 50-48 percent, and his strength in the suburbs helped him capture previously “red” states like Virginia, Ohio, and North Carolina. After carrying every suburban Puget Sound legislative district in 2004, this year Dino Rossi lost Pierce and Snohomish counties, and slipped by 4 percent in King County. The huge Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate are due to the loss of seats in the suburbs in recent years.
What has happened in the suburbs is realignment, not just a short term trend. If it is not reversed Republicans have no hope of governing, either nationally or in Washington state. The first step is to understand that this realignment manifests itself geographically, but it is actually cultural.
Politics used to be about economics. Very broadly speaking, management was Republican, labor was Democratic. People with more education tended to vote Republican, while people with less voted for Democrats. All of that has changed. Today the number one predictor for political behavior is how often you go to church. Values have replaced economics.
Consider this exit poll data from the recent election:
- Nationally, 74 percent of white, self-described evangelical/born-again Christians (26 percent of the population) supported John McCain, while 62 percent of the rest of America supported Barack Obama. Here, 71 percent of the white evangelical/born-Christians (24 percent of Washington State) voted for Dino Rossi; while 62 percent of everyone else voted for Chris Gregoire.
- McCain won handily among those who say they go to church weekly, while Obama won just as handily among those who say they attend occasionally or never.
- 60 percent of self-described moderates supported Obama and Gregoire.
- Nationally, McCain won narrowly among white college graduates, but here, 58 percent of white college graduates voted for Gregoire.
- Voters making over $100,000 a year split nearly 50/50 between McCain and Obama, and between Rossi and Gregoire.
White, moderate, college educated, upper middle class, secular — this describes suburban voters. Republicans need to compete for every vote, but a conservative, center-right party is always going to struggle to win among minorities and city dwellers. If Republicans can’t add college educated white suburbanites back to their coalition of rural voters and evangelicals then they can’t win, period. If the values divide hardens, Republican math just doesn’t add up.
Conventional wisdom holds that Republican stands on social issues, such as abortion and stem cell research, have caused this realignment. Clearly, being pro-life is not a popular position among secular suburban moderates, but that doesn’t explain the collapses of 2006 and 2008. Republicans have generally been perceived as “conservative” and pro-life for a long time, yet were still able to win in the suburbs. In the past, secular suburban moderates were willing to support Republicans even if they were uncomfortable with the Party’s social issue wing. What happened? The game changer has been competence, not ideology.
Three great calamities defined President Bush’s second term and took Republicans down: the Iraq insurgency, the response to Hurricane Katrina, and the financial collapse. Add in congressional and administration Republican scandals and you have a party that simply appeared incompetent. To voters not motivated by values and ideology — secular, college educated moderates — this is a fatal blow. These voters approach elections like a job interview, rather than as a clash of ideas. What matters is competence, results, solving problems. Suburbanites didn’t see that from the Bush administration and the Republican Congress, and they took it out on Republican candidates up and down the ballot in what Newt Gingrich argues persuasively was a “performance election, not an ideological election.”
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