Did the 2008 Election Finish Off the Republican Party?

by Crocker on June 1, 2009, 5:41 am

in History,Politics

The usual bloviators keep telling us that the Republicans are finished as a national party. You know the talk – only Mississippi and Alabama vote Republican, the northeast is gone and say goodnight, damned Republicans. According to this crowd, Republicans at all levels should become more ‘moderate’ because the county’s going Marxist-Leninist, as Pravda seems to think. Ron Brownstein, for instance, announced that the Republican party is on life support – dealt an unrecoverable blow by the all-powerful Democrats.

But not so fast. As Sean Trende observes at the Real Clear Politics blog, Brownstein was saying just the opposite after the 2004 election – that it was the Dems who were finished:

In states like Ohio, Minnesota and Virginia, Republican strength in these outer suburbs is offsetting Democratic gains over the last decade in more established — and often more affluent — inner-tier suburbs. As Democrats analyze a demoralizing defeat in this month’s presidential election, one key question they face is whether they can reduce the expanding Republican advantage on the new frontier between suburbs and countryside.

“When any party is losing a growing group of voters, that’s a problem — and this is a group where support for Democrats is diminishing as the size of the group grows,” said Mark Mellman, Kerry’s campaign pollster.

Now, was 2008 a ‘transformation’ election that completely rearranged the electoral map? Absolutely not. As Trende notes, there have been such elections in US history, like the realignment from 1888 to 1896, when William Jennings Bryan took an obscure issue like the gold standard and greenback currency, combined it with skillful demagoguery against banks, Wall Street and ‘eastern interests’ and transformed the electoral map. The map looks like this:


Note the dramatic shifts. The South (Georgia is a curious exception) and West move sharply toward the Democrats. The Northeast, horrified by Bryan’s inflationary politics, move toward the Republicans, wiping out what had been a strong Democratic minority in the region. Only eight states moved within two points of the national average. 21 states (at that time a majority) moved more than five points from the national average.

By contrast, the 2008 electoral map only shows a slight – and very general movement – from one party to the other based on the usual swings of ‘satisfaction – dissatisfaction’.

Instead 2008 looks like an election where the country, dissatisfied with the Republicans, moved together toward the other party. The South moved as well, and moved about as much toward the Democrats as did other areas of the country. Since the GOP was stronger in the South to begin with, it maintained its base there, while losing swing areas and getting obliterated in areas where the Democrats had the upper hand. This is something of the inverse of 1984, where Republicans swept the floor everywhere — but where no one would have called Massachusetts “purple” even though it had gone for Republicans twice in a row.

In fact, what’s really surprising is that the Democrats didn’t win bigger than they did. With an unpopular president, two unpopular wars, hurricanes and an economic collapse, the Dems were able to move the country only a very few points. It should have been an absolute tsunami – but it wasn’t.

But most interesting of all – to me at least – is Trende’s parting observation about the supposed ‘weakness’ of Republicans outside the south. The received wisdom is that the Republicans are becoming a ‘regional’ party, with little chance to compete nationally. But consider that statement against the country’s larger demographic movement.

Finally, any analysis of the GOP’s tradeoff of the Northeast for the South needs to consider the following: from 1952-2012, the South will have gone from 128 to 159 electoral votes. During that same time, New England will have fallen from 40 to 33, and NE+NY+PA from 117 electoral votes to 83. Even adding California and Illinois to the Dems’ base doesn’t raise them to parity.

To put it differently, in 1952, NY and PA combined for about as many votes as the entire South combined less TX, GA and NC. In 2012, the deep south (AR, MS, LA, AL, SC) will have more EVs than all of New England, and TX, FL, and GA will have as many EV’s as NE+NY+PA. In other words, trading the South for the North wasn’t a half-bad trade for the GOP, especially since demographic shifts in New England had begun weakening the GOP’s hold in the Northeast during the early 1900s.

For a New Englander like me, this last point is very interesting indeed: the shift in New England from Red to Blue is no recent phenomenon – in reality it began nearly a century ago and probably has little to do with Republicans being ‘too conservative’.

In fact, one could argue that the trend has continued precisely because New England Republicans weren’t willing to act more like red state Republicans. And all the more reason nationally not to become Democrat-lite.

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