The Republican Death Spiral

I didn’t know until today that when columnist Robert Novak tarred George McGovern as the candidate of legalized pot, draft amnesty, and legal abortion (later alliterated to acid, amnesty and abortion) that his source was McGovern’s future running mate Tom Eagleton. Of course, Eagleton also contributed to McGovern’s historic drubbing by declining to disclose that he’d been treated for depression with electroconvulsive therapy. Once that became public, McGovern felt compelled to drop him from the ticket in favor of Sargent Shriver.

The acid, amnesty, and abortion charge was never a fair characterization of McGovern’s stated positions. He did not favor the legalization of either acid or marijuana, his position on abortion was that it should be left to the states to decide, and Nixon, Carter, and Ford all favored some kind of amnesty for Vietnam draft dodgers, so it’s hard to see how McGovern really stood out from his peers.

Nonetheless, the accusation captured something fundamental about the chasm that was opening between the new left and the old, and the full measure of the backlash would be felt at the ballot boxes in November 1972. The Democrats under McGovern’s leadership had gotten too far ahead of the rest of the country and whatever the merits of their positions, at the time it’s fair to say that they were out of touch with the electorate and had alienated an essential part of their political base.

Something similar seems to be happening now to the Republican Party. As Ron Brownstein details in his careful review of the midterm election exit polls, traditional GOP constituencies are moving against the party with what can only be described as revulsion and indignation. Chief among these are white professionals, particularly women, and particularly in the suburbs.

In McGovern’s case, he shed Democratic voters while doing very little to win over anyone from the Republican side, resulting in a landslide loss. The Republicans aren’t in quite so dire a position because they’ve actually been gaining support among the the Democrats’ traditional farmer/labor wing. In other words, we’re not seeing the playing board tip so much as watching the pieces get moved around. That’s why the 2016 election was so close and why the Senate is so evenly divided and why bellwether states like Florida are still delivering toss-up results. Yet, this swapping of voters is not going to remain close to even for long because the Democrats are much better positioned for the future.

More than anything else, the midterms exposed an enormous generational divide.

The exit poll measuring preferences in House elections found that Democrats carried fully two thirds of voters aged 18-29. That was their best showing with them in exit polls since at least 1986 (narrowly exceeding their level even in former President Barack Obama’s sweeping 2008 victory) and a big improvement on Hillary Clinton’s 55% among them in 2016. And preliminary calculations indicate that youth turnout may have been half again as large in 2018 as it was in 2014, the most recent midterm.

Even more striking was the consistency of the Democratic advantage around the nation. The Democratic candidate won voters aged 18-29 in all 21 Senate races with an exit poll except for Indiana, where Joe Donnelly tied Republican Mike Braun. (These figures do not include the exit poll in California, where two Democrats ran against each other after claiming the top spots in last June’s state top-two primary.) Senate Democrats carried about three-fifths or more of these younger voters in Florida, Michigan, Minnesota (both for incumbent Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, who was elected in a special election), Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Democrats also reached at least 60% with them in governor’s races in Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In the California governor’s race, Democrat Gavin Newsom carried 69% of younger voters.

Just as important, the Democratic advantage extended up the age ladder. Against Trump in 2016, Clinton carried only 51% of voters aged 30-44; while Trump won just 41% of them, a substantial 8% scattered to third-party candidates.This time, those voters consolidated behind Democrats. In the national House exit poll, Democrats won 58%.

As younger voters get older and settled in their communities, they will vote in greater percentages, while the base of the GOP is already geriatric. It’s true that today’s kids will likely get more conservative and tax-averse as they reach their peak-earning years, but the GOP is starting off at a very low point with this generational cohort. That they’re already losing people in their peak-earning years is a bad sign for the future.

An obvious reason why the Republicans are doing so poorly with people under retirement age is that their message is basically a rebellion against the growing diversity of America. That movement isn’t going to slow down and will in fact accelerate regardless of whether or not Trump succeeds in building a southern border wall.

If the Republican Party doesn’t start to adapt, they will suffer increasingly big political losses over time.

The other major indicator in the midterms was educational attainment. Pretty much any area with above-average education levels was a killing zone for the GOP. With some exceptions in the Senate races, like West Virginia, Montana, and Nevada, any places with below-average education levels were unfriendly to the Democrats.

This creates an unfortunate problem. Just as conservatives now see diversity as a political threat, they are beginning to see a college education as a political threat. It’s not just that college students are increasingly hostile to conservative opinions. The Republicans aren’t going to remain committed to higher education if they think it is costing them elections.

When their ideas are seen as disreputable and immoral by academia, that makes it easier for them to reject expert opinions and the entire scientific method, leading them into an unfit condition to exercise leadership. They’ve already traveled pretty far down this road, but it’s likely to get far worse in the near future.

Increasingly, the GOP doesn’t want to live in reality. They don’t want the country as it is, and they don’t want the evidence that scientists and experts provide. They’ve created a right-wing media-saturated bubble to protect them from outside facts, but this seems more like a holding action than any kind of permanent solution.

The deep erosion of the Republican Party’s position in Texas is a leading indicator of where things are headed if conservatives retain their iron grip on the Party of Lincoln. But, unfortunately, the results of the midterms will make things worse. The GOP in January will be representing a less diverse, less educated, and less affluent slice of America than they are today, making it unlikely that they’ll hear the right messages from their constituents.

It appears that they’ve entered the same kind of death spiral that the Democrats suffered leading up to the Reagan Revolution.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.