The Fundamentals and the Direction of the GOP

A big part of the political discussion this year has revolved around a debate in GOP circles about what if anything the Republican Party can do to overcome its losing ways. Much of the debate has revolved around a majority position that technology, “outreach,” and perhaps a strategic shift on a few demographically important issues like immigration and marriage equality would do the trick, and a minority faction arguing that something more thoroughgoing was in order. And then there was a third camp, which I strongly suspect is under-represented in the MSM, that believes additional purges of party “moderates,” and a more rigorous stance of ideological purity and partisan differentiation, is in order.

But now we are seeing some pushback from political scientists and political-science-influenced writers arguing that all this talk misses the overriding importance of the fundamentals, especially short-term economic trends and enduring party identification patterns, that no matter of technology, ideology, strategic positioning on “the issues,” candidate quality, or campaign tactics could have significantly changed. Some of this talk will serve as a healthy corrective to the usual Beltway over-interpretation of elections as reflecting the refusal of political actors to take elite advice or seize “game change” moments. I strongly suspect, however, that the net effect of the poli sci backlash will be to reinforce habits of inertia in the GOP, or even strengthen conservatives who think a further “shift to the right” on issues and messaging can boost “base” voting without exacting any cost among swing voters who hardly pay attention to anything going on in campaigns.

The first “fundamentalist” broadside was fired by George Washington University’s John Sides (founder of that very useful poli sci popularizing site The Monkey Cage) at WaPo Wonkblog. You should read the whole thing, but its essence was to stress that Obama’s win was predictable according to economy-based forecasting models, and that voters, as opposed to pundits, didn’t share the virtually unanimous impression of the experts that Mitt Romney was snared by a right-tilting primary competition that left him dangerously exposed in the general election.

Sides does warn that his analysis should not be used to argue that it’s impossible for Republicans to lose votes by appearing too “extreme,” but there’s little doubt that’s exactly how it will be interpreted by many conservatives fighting any sort of significant ideological reboot.

Also at WaPo, Jonathan Bernstein focused on the very specific and perennial question as to whether “issues” matter that much to voters. Like most political scientists, he took the “not so much” position:

The key, I think, is just to focus on party identification as by far the most important factor in vote choice. Basically, people who think of themselves as Republicans are going to vote for Republican candidates, and it’s relatively difficult to push them off of that. Sure, it’s possible. But single issues, even multiple single issues, are unlikely to do the trick.

The exception would be single issues which are powerful enough for individuals that they break the bonds of party. But for that, it doesn’t really matter how the population in general feels about an issue, even at the 90 percent level; what matters, presumably (and I don’t think we have a lot of studies on this) is whether that particular issue is so central to one’s political identity that it overrides habit and loyalty. And most issues, for most of us, aren’t anywhere close to that.

Whether that’s true or not (and yes, the evidence suggests it is at least up to a point), this analysis will also comfort those in the GOP who believe they can play a double-game of stressing (or at least dog-whistling) radical issue positions to the “base” voters who do care about this stuff without the rest of the electorate much noticing.

Finally, today, Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics, who wars regularly against “realignment” theories from every direction (particularly demographic predictions of an enduring Democratic advantage), takes up the “fundamentalist” cudgels to argue that partisan voting patterns are exceptionally stable and that wins or losses are mostly attributable to bad timing and partisan responsibility for wars and recessions, rather than demographic trends or issues positioning:

While it’s true that Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, we should also be able to agree that, given the state of the economy and difficulty in winning three consecutive terms (much less four), that Republicans really shouldn’t have won in 1992, 1996, and 2008. Truth be told, they had no business making 2000 as close as they did. Structural factors favored the Democrats in 2012 as well.

Though we can try to explain this in terms of demographics, the simpler explanation is that these elections pretty much turned out how we’d expect without any reference to demographics; Republicans have simply ended up on the wrong side of the coin toss (much as Democrats often did from 1952 to 1988, which are also largely explained by wars and the economy). In terms of the House, Republicans overperformed on the fundamentals in 1994, 2002, and 2010, while underperforming slightly in 1998 and substantially in 2006. We simply aren’t seeing the types of surprising Democratic wins we’d expect from a massive demographic shift.

Instead, we’re seeing is what we’ve seen over the past 80 years: Short-term contingencies occasionally give one party or the other the edge, but a clear tendency exists to revert back to the mean of a 50/50 nation. This tendency has continued irrespective of party self-identification. Maybe it will change in the future, but we haven’t seen much evidence of it yet.

Sean does not, unfortunately, address the issue of whether ideology has a crucial influence on the emergence of the wars and recessions that make up so large a part of the “fundamentals.” I mean, the real, external world doesn’t always operate independently of the political actors who seek to influence it, even if they aren’t as omnipotent as we sometimes imagine.

The broader issue, in my informed but amateur opinion, is whether debates over party performance in elections can find a happy medium between remorseless “fundamentals” doctrines that happen (ironically) to strengthen the hands of ideological warriors who believe they are free to seek to reshape the world according to their fevered imaginations without electoral consequences, and Politico-style “game change” narratives that also enable ideologues by suggesting money, tactics, candidate personalities, and campaign “events” could elect Mussolini if the worm turns right on the crucial day.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.