Saturday, November 10, 2012

Election aftermath

A little late to the post-election analysis party, but here are some highlights and observations:
  • First off, full credit to the state pollsters and Nate Silver, who called the race within a 2-3 percent margin in most cases. Right now it looks like the state poll averages only missed one state -- Florida (projected Romney by 1.5) -- and if there was any bias, it was against Obama (Wisconsin, for example, was projected at +4 for Obama, who actually won by 7). They pretty much nailed it in 2008 as well, which suggests that despite all of the alleged problems with polling, such as cell phones and low caller response rates, pollsters know exactly what they're doing (at least in the aggregate).
  • Remember how the Citizens United decision was going to ruin democracy as we know it, ensuring the Koch brothers/Republicans could simply spend their way to electoral victory? Not so much. Yet another leftist talking point that has been exposed as hollow.
  • Marijuana legalization passed in Colorado and Oregon, which is wonderful progress both in expanding freedom and ending an insane and wasteful approach to drug policy. This movement is only going to grow in the years ahead, and Republicans would be wise to champion it in the interest of limited government and fiscal responsibility (although they probably won't). It will be interesting to see how the federal government -- read: the Obama administration -- chooses to handle this.
  • California is officially a one party state, and will presumably make further advancements in its bid to tax, spend and regulate itself into prosperity. As the Wall Street Journal editorializes, "Californians will experience the joys of one-party, union-run progressive governance." This should be instructive to observe. 
  • While Michigan voters opted for President Obama over Mitt Romney by a 54-45 percent margin, they also voted down a union-backed measure that would have enshrined collective bargaining rights in the state's constitution by 18 points. Ouch.
  • Some genuinely bad news: Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuño lost his re-election bid by less than 1 percent. Fortuño was the first Republican governor of the island since 1969 and has presided over a net tax cut as well as big cuts to government spending. That he even came so close to re-election in what appears to be a heavily left-leaning territory is a likely tribute to his job performance.
Calm Down

This election has produced a lot of chatter on the political right over whether the left-wing is now in an unstoppable ascendancy and Republicans headed for permanent minority status. This is completely overblown, particularly when one considers that Republicans have a majority in the House and governorships of 30 states. In the Senate, meanwhile, it is absolutely stunning both how much of the Democratic majority is directly attributable to Democrats selecting good candidates from red/purple states in recent election cycles and Republicans nominating terrible ones.

The impact of candidate selection applies no less to the presidential level as in the Senate. Just as Massachusetts did not suddenly become a right-wing bastion with the election of Scott Brown, the political identity of the United States does not exclusively hinge on which party wins the White House. In 1988 George H.W. Bush handily won the presidency, while eight years later Bill Clinton easily defeated Bob Dole. Eight years after that George W. Bush beat John Kerry by 2.4 percent while in another eight years Barack Obama prevailed over Mitt Romney by almost the exact same margin.

The US did not flip-flop from left to right and then back again in these elections, it just went with the stronger candidate. Democrats have been blessed to have two political superstars in Bill Clinton and Barack Obama over the last twenty years while the GOP has not had anyone comparable since Reagan.

The reality of the 2012 presidential election is this: Mitt Romney -- a fairly middling candidate neither particularly good nor bad -- faced an opponent that was not only an incumbent (only one of which has lost in the last 32 years) but a cultural icon. Barack Obama was awarded a Nobel Prize basically just for existing, his books have sold millions of copies, he's historic, his supporters wear t-shirts with his image  and celebrities fall all over themselves in praise of him. The man has even had a musical about him performed in Germany. 

Romney, suffice to say, has none of those attributes and is the recipient of no similar adulation. Indeed, in many ways he is the opposite, reviled by some for making a bunch of money in the financial sector at a time when people hate Wall Street. There is little fresh or original about him (outside of being a Mormon, a demographic known for its aversion to alcohol and caffeine, which doesn't exactly scream "cool"). He was also perhaps the least qualified person Republicans could have nominated to oppose Obamacare, a policy that still enjoys a net negative approval rating. 

There were also campaign missteps, such as allowing the Obama campaign to take a wrecking ball to Romney's reputation early on in swing states (in fairness, the Wall Street Journal this week reported this is due to federal regulations, stating "The problem: Mr. Romney had burned through much of his money raised for the primaries, and by law, he couldn't begin spending his general-election funds until he accepted the GOP nomination late in the summer.") In the words of Paul Begala:
I am still amazed that Romney did not respond. He allowed our little, underfunded super PAC to define him as Gordon Gekko.
The GOP ticket also got beat in the ground game, where the Obama campaign appears to have voter turnout down to a science while the Romney camp's effort appears to have been a disaster.

One also has to wonder about the quality of the strategic thinking by the campaign given the grumbling from one adviser that Romney's failure was, at least in part, due to a failure to talk about Benghazi in the days immediately preceding the election.

Lastly there was some plain bad luck. Hurricane Sandy, celebrated by Michael Moore and Chris Matthews, certainly did hurt the president's image while comments from Republican Senate candidates regarding rape certainly did nothing to dispell the idea that Romney and his fellow travelers were anti-women. Romney couldn't even get traction on the economy, the issue he planned to ride to a successful election, with far more voters blaming the country's economic travails on Bush than Obama.

Add all of this up and a 2.5 percent loss is not particularly shocking. And let us remind ourselves Romney was hardly the right-wing ideal.

The Wrong Conversation

In sifting through the rubble of the election debacle, much chatter has focused on Romney's miserable performance among racial minorities. Particular attention has been given to Hispanics and the need to lure them into the GOP camp, with the subsequent conversation usually including at least three elements: the need for a softened stance on immigration, claims that Hispanics are natural conservatives and Marco Rubio. All are either overblown or entirely misplaced.

Let's start with immigration. Virtually all ink spilled on the subject suggests that if Republicans would simply adopt a softer stance on the issue Hispanics would come flocking (or at least give the party a significant bump). Evidence usually consists of anecdotes such as the following:
“The problem Romney had, he was very clear, he was not going to do anything for the immigration,” said Manuel Villena, 56, a Peruvian American who came to the United States in 1985 and now has a construction business in Virginia’s bellwether Prince William County. “The best president we ever had was Reagan. Because Reagan said amnesty for everyone. And he was a Republican.”
This explanation, however, does not appear to square with the data:

Amnesty for illegal immigrants was co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and signed into law by President Reagan in November of 1986. Two years later George H.W. Bush, Reagan's Vice President, received 7 percent less when facing the hapless Michael Dukakis than Reagan had four years previously, and in 1992 Hispanics gave Bill Clinton the same percentage of the vote as they had given Mondale -- even with Ross Perot in the race to split the vote! 

Republicans then hit a new low of 21 percent in 1996 (admittedly likely influenced by both the incumbent's popularity as well as a backlash among California Hispanics over Proposition 187), and did not equal their performance among Hispanics in 1984 -- two years before amnesty was granted -- until 2004, a full 18 years after amnesty. Further consider that John McCain lost heavily among Hispanics to Obama in 2008 despite the fact that only three years previously he had co-sponsored legislation with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy to loosen immigration restrictions.

Perhaps there are good reasons to adopt a more lenient stance on immigration, but thinking it will lead to a sudden GOP reversal of fortunes among Latinos is not among them.

The next argument, that Hispanics are "natural" conservatives owing to their work ethic and family values, is an exercise in sloppy and wishful thinking. First of all, according to this logic aren't *all* racial/ethnic groups natural conservatives? Which groups would anyone describe as lazy or in favor of dysfunctional families? If everyone is a natural conservative then the term loses all meaning.

In fact, there is little reason to think Latinos are a natural fit for the political right. Almost all come from countries where the political culture has been shaped by a Spanish colonial legacy and the Catholic church, neither of which has a history of supporting limited government. It's no surprise these countries also tend to feature large public sectors where looking to the government for guidance/assistance is the norm. These values and attitudes are then imbibed and taken with Hispanics immigrants when crossing the border.

While one might be tempted to believe this experience with comparatively large government and poorly functioning economies makes them particularly receptive to the GOP message of limited government and free enterprise, it's not quite that simple. After all, if experience with failed government led one to embrace the political right, blacks would be abandoning the Democratic party in droves. 

The only Latinos that are a natural fit for Republicans are Cuban exiles who fled from Castro immediately following his rise to power. As both Cubans and political rather than economic refugees, however, they do not represent the typical Latino experience. Furthermore, this is a demographic that is shrinking by the day -- its political power along with it.

As for Marco Rubio, he is neither ready for the duties of the White House -- with less than a full term as senator under his belt -- nor is it apparent his selection would make much of an impact among the Hispanic vote. Ted Cruz, another Cuban-American running in a state whose Hispanic population is comprised mostly of Mexican-Americans, only out-performed Mitt Romney by about 6 percent. It is not apparent why Rubio would achieve significantly better results. Lastly, Republicans should be wary of engaging in patronizing affirmative action based on the logic that Hispanics would vote for Rubio simply because of his surname. If Rubio has a future in higher office, let him earn it through the power of his ideas and his ability to communicate them rather than his ethnicity.

With regard to the black vote, meanwhile, there is little sign it either shares the Republican party's stated commitment to limited government or is anything but completely loyal to the Democratic party. While Republicans should seek to win black votes, just as they should seek to win all votes, this is not an area ripe for dramatic inroads. 

Where to Go From Here

Rather than focusing on racial demographics that have never been very ideologically in tune with the GOP, Republicans would also do well to ponder why they are losing voters have been receptive to the party in the past. One such example is New Hampshire. As recently as 2000, George W. Bush beat Al Gore in Dixville Notch, NH by 21-5 (with one vote for Ralph Nader). In 2008 it went for Barack Obama by 15-6 and tied this year 5-5. In Hart's Location, meanwhile, Bush beat Gore in 2000 by 17-13. This year? 23-9 (with two votes for Gary Johnson). That's actually a worse performance than 2008, when Obama won 17-10. Statewide, Bush edged Gore by two percent in 2000 and Bill Clinton only received 39 percent in 1992.

These results are not because a large number of Hispanics moved into the state or some other dramatic shift in demographics. Rather, the failure of both the Romney campaign and Republicans at large in the state appears due to a familiar culprit:
Democrats made huge gains in the state House, where they won back the majority, and narrowed the GOP advantage in the state Senate. The party also snatched away both U.S. House seats from Republican hands, and held the governorship.

So, how to explain what happened in the state that experienced a dramatic political upheaval during an election that elsewhere produced mostly marginal shifts in power at all levels of governance?
...Let’s start by looking at the state legislature, the country’s largest, with 424 members, 400 of whom are in the House. Democrats made huge gains in the state House on Tuesday, winning a 222-178 majority — nearly identical to the 225-175 majority the party held after the 2008 election. In the 2010 GOP wave election, Republicans seized the majority, winning a commanding 298-102 advantage. 
But what the GOP decided to do with that majority appears to have contributed heavily to the significant reduction of its ranks in 2012. Republicans often focused on social issues, spearheading a failed measure to repeal same-sex marriage, tightening abortion restrictions for girls under 18, and pushing to exempt certain religious institutions from contraceptive insurance coverage requirements. The agenda prompted some hand-wringing, even from within the GOP. 
“Let gay marriage and existing abortion laws stand. Tell voters that regardless of your personal beliefs, you accept these issues as settled law and that you will not refight past battles. Do this, and Republican candidates have a chance to have a conversation with the women and young voters they need to persuade in order to win elections,” wrote former state Republican Party chairman Fergus Cullen in a New Hampshire Union-Leader op-ed published Friday. 
The state has historically been a limited-government, independent-friendly place. But while the sentiment might have helped voters fed up with the economy and the government’s handling of it in 2010, it may have backfired when state officials leaned into social issues during the last two years.“New Hampshire voters are small government voters, but it all depends on what issues we are talking about,” said University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala. 
“The Republicans won on economic issues and tried to govern on social issues,” added Doug Hattaway, a veteran Democratic strategist who knows New Hampshire well. 
It probably didn’t help Republicans that their statewide standard-bearer — gubernatorial nominee Ovide Lamontagne — had espoused well-known socially conservative positions. Democrats pounced, and exit polls show it worked, as women and independents — those typically least receptive to social conservative views — boosted Democrat Maggie Hassan to victory over Lamontagne.
Further evidence of the GOP's problem with social issues appears to be found in Wisconsin, which re-elected Scott Walker this year by a 7 percent margin in a high-profile election but then only a few months later handed President Obama a 7 point victory -- a 14 point swing. Again, shifting demographics do not explain this.

What is interesting, however, is that in a recall election centered on fiscal/economic issues, Republicans prevailed, while in a presidential election with a plethora of issues at stake, they failed. An additional point to consider is that at the same time the Republican ticket was busy losing the presidential and senate contests in Wisconsin, the GOP recaptured control of the state senate. 

The implications are pretty straightforward: if Republicans are interested in winning elections, the party must become more libertarian. As an added bonus this would make the GOP more ideologically coherent. It rings hollow when Republicans speak of liberty and freedom in one breath, and then in the next seek to introduce new restrictions on marriage or continue to champion a failed war on drugs.

Furthermore, the country is not endangered because of abortion, gay marriage, flag desecration or any other hot-button social issues -- any looming crisis is the result of a crushing debt burden, entitlements are badly in need of reforming and the economy is being held back by a morass of regulation and an incomprehensible tax code. 

As a further benefit, emphasizing economic issues over social ones might even win over some of those ethnic minorities everyone is so worried about. Shikha Dalmia, in attempting to explain why Indian-Americans voted 84 percent for Barack Obama in 2008, offers up this:
When the Republican Party loudly touts its allegiance to “Christian values” and insists that Christianity is inextricably interwoven into the DNA of this country, it doesn’t anger Indians, it nonplusses them. It effectively signals to them that they don’t fully belong in America or their party.
Republicans need to be the party that will leave you alone and allow you to get rich. Whereas Obama campaigned with the vacuous slogan of "forward," Republicans need to campaign with one simple principle -- "freedom." And mean it. 

The path for doing this is open, with Republicans dominating a number of state governments. In Tennessee for example, Republicans now control both houses of the state legislature with a two-thirds super-majority. When combined with Republican Governor Bill Haslam, this essentially means Republicans can do whatever it wants. But how will they wield that power? Will they use it to pare back abortion and dictate how various school subjects should be taught, or will they focus their attention on making the state a model for economic freedom and limited government? Note the last paragraph of the linked article above:
When the General Assembly convenes in January, it may take some work to impress voters. Caroline Cooley of Knoxville said lawmakers need to get serious. 
"I wish they'd get away from all the silly stuff, all the social engineering, social meandering and just pay attention to education, the economy, and things that government should be doing," said the 61-year-old physician.
Just as California is increasingly a demonstration of the failure of leftist policy and governance, states such as Tennessee must become shining examples of what conservative/libertarian policy can achieve.

Admittedly, there is always the possibility that this blog post is simply an example of the Dougherty Doctrine (that one's personal beliefs hold the key to salvation for the Republican party). Then again, Republicans haven't been losing contests in swing and conservative-leaning states because the candidates were perceived as having an extreme commitment to the cause of limited government. Social conservatives can't say the same.

Update: Ross Douthat offers a similar take regarding Hispanics:
First, Hispanics are not single-issue voters: they can be alienated by nativism, but they can’t just be won by the promise of green cards and open borders. (After Reagan signed an amnesty bill in 1986, the Republican share of the Hispanic vote fell in the next presidential election.) Latino voters are not, as conservative strategists often claim, “natural” Republican voters — notwithstanding their (moderate) social conservatism, they tend to lean leftward on economic issues, and to see government more as an ally than a foe. They can be wooed, gradually, if Republicans address their aspirations and anxieties, but they aren’t going to be claimed in one legislative pander.
Tino Sanandaji also comments.

Update: Sanandaji has a very detailed post explaining why Hispanics are natural Democrats.

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