Sunday, November 25, 2012

Paths Not Taken

Much discussion has been made after this election about the future of the Republican Party. This is the sort of postmortem that occurs after most lost elections, of course, and sometimes it involves some introspective naval-gazing and sometimes it involves an uncoordinated bloodbath of no consequence. A generation ago, the Democratic Party has suffered a grand total of one Presidential win in 24 years--and that was the hapless Jimmy Carter. It took that long for the party as a whole to basically get their shit together to elect Bill Clinton, who was a far cry from the liberal base that Lyndon Johnson has cemented so many decades before.

It's not quite that bad yet for the Republican Party, but I think it's important to look at the future of both parties. While some of this might not make a difference in 2016, nor is anything set in stone, there are real differences (and a further string of evidence that there will never be any sort of "permanent" majority by either party).

For the Republicans:
  • This isn't news, but the Republicans will have to make major inroads into the Hispanic demographic. This is certainly going to be tricky, since Hispanics aren't simply one-issue (i.e., immigration) voters; they tend to be socially conservative and fiscally liberal. There is a danger in embracing populism too much (lest they lose support from other constituencies), so parsing this issue might require blatant pasting of support (nominate and run more Hispanics while tacking to a more pro-immigration stance) while the more nuanced aspects of the demographic are sorted out.
  • As a corollary, it's important to remember that the larger a group is, the more diffuse it becomes. For Hispanics, it may mean that they fracture into two or even three camps: the small business owners, veterans, and Catholics might become Republican, while the younger and more labor-oriented Hispanics might remain Democratic. We already see this happening, but as time goes on it, like so many other demographics, won't act as a base for either party. (This, of course, works both ways.)
  • The litmus test for social issues in general needs to be removed. High-profile platform floor fights that were witnessed this year at the convention are ultimately damaging from a PR perspective. It used to be that platforms were meaningless safety valves to let hard-right or -left delegates vent out their frustrations; platforms don't mean anything and aren't binding, and for decades were never given a second thought. (For example, there were planks on the 2012 GOP platform that Romney did not agree with, but you wouldn't know that from the coverage.) In today's media landscape, however, the platform is front and center, and will now have to be treated as such--and a case can be made that, since it has no practical effect, it may be worth discarding altogether. Republicans can easily frame social issues differently.
  • What about the Tea Party? In some ways, the Tea Party is a scapegoat; it's not like these were people who previously had stayed home on election day. It's just a better-organized collection of a faction within the Republican Party. (Just for the record, there's equivalent factions in the Democratic Party as well.) Most likely they will remain a force, but not anything close to what they were before.
For the Democrats:
  • The temptation is going to be to keep things going the way they have--two solid electoral victories where key swing states became even more blue is probably a good recipe to keep doing. Still, there is a danger in becoming more complacent; after all, the Republicans managed to flip it in 2000 after a solid two elections under Bill Clinton. If the Republicans crack one big demographic--say, Hispanics or single women--the entire formula falls apart. The fact that Congress is as divided as ever means that there isn't a solid majority for either side.
  • Aside from demographics, there are some unique fissures in the Democratic party, almost all under the flash point of labor unions. There are already deep ideological differences between Hispanics and unions (open immigration--i.e., more low-skill and low-wage workers--cause pressure to keep wages down), and the fight between environmentalists and unions is just going to get worse (energy workers in particular will most likely face hard times if Obama's presented policies take effect). 
  • The biggest throwdown is going to be for public sector unions: their pensions, after decades of generous contracts and lackluster oversight, are going to explode rather shortly, and the money just isn't going to be there. This is going to force most workers to dramatically increase their contributions or take pension cuts, neither of which will be a happy time for either side. (And there isn't really any other sort of recourse--the promises made had zero chance of being feasible.) Of course, the Democratic Party has counted on this constituency and holds pretty much all the places of power to deal with the public sector, so when the shit hits the fan there is literally only Party to place blame. Unions and environmentalists aren't going to be voting Republican anytime soon, but this is the exact sort of thing that causes them to stay home. 
So what will happen in the next few elections? While Democrats have certainly made gains in both the South and the West, the Republicans have been surprisingly successful the past two years in New England. Despite the huge wins for Obama in 2012, states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are still very close, where only a shift in 2 or 3 percent will flip it. About the only state that is no longer a swing state after the past three elections is New Mexico, which Obama won handily by 10 points (although this was surely skewed by the presence of Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate who was a former governor of that state).

What should each side do? The Democrat's job is simpler (although not necessarily easier): hold on to those demographics they have managed to win the last two times: single women, Hispanics, and suburbanites. The Republicans is more complicated, since it will involve balancing different constituencies. The most lucrative tack is probably to dial back on many social issues so they don't scare away those demographics they used to win handily, but also should start poaching in New England and western states; both of these areas seem to prefer fiscally conservative and socially moderate Republicans, and making them more plentiful will let them win seats in sympathetic states like New Hampshire, Maine, Colorado, and even (maybe) places like Oregon and Connecticut. The map won't change much, but it will certainly change as elections continue. 

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