“The Republican brand is in the trash can. I’ve often observed that if we were a dog food, they would take us off the shelf.” So said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.)
David Ogilvy, called the father of modern advertising, once had a client who sold dog food. Ogilvy created a campaign that other ad executives called brilliant. He redesigned the cans and labels. The new design won awards. His print and television ads tested at the top of the approval charts and won more awards. The campaign was rolled out and sales boomed. Then, in a few weeks, sales fell back to the old level.
The puzzled and angered client summoned Ogilvy to defend the campaign. Ogilvy was prepared for the confrontation; He had trained under public opinion researcher George Gallup. He brought along reams of research and poured charts and tables and data across the client’s desk. Then, as the client tried to wade through the research, Ogilvy summed up the problem: “Dogs don’t like your dog food.”
Sometimes, the presentation cannot overcome the product’s problems. So it may be with a private but widely circulated report sent to his GOP colleagues by retiring Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia. The colleagues may have no taste for brutal honesty, even after a third straight loss in special elections in heavily Republican districts so far in 2008.
First, the Illinois district of retired GOP Speaker Dennis Hastert went Democratic in March. A national Republican spokeswoman said: “The one thing 2008 has shown is that one election in one state does not prove a trend.” Next a former Republican congressman lost in a Louisiana district that was so heavily Republican that the Democrats had not even fielded a candidate for nearly 22 years. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the defeat in Louisiana a “wake up call.”
Then came more trouble in May, this time in a Mississippi district that President Bush carried with 62 percent in 2004. The Republican candidate got only 46 percent. Boehner called the defeat in Mississippi a “wake up call.”
How many wake up calls are needed?
Davis had a different perspective. He said these three losses were a sign of a “toxic” political environment for Republicans, calling the defeats “canaries in the coalmine” for the survival of the Republican party. He is abandoning a promising House career rather than face a continuing decline in Republican fortunes.
Recent polling suggests that an amazing 80-85 percent of Americans are unhappy with the direction that the country is heading. The sputtering economy, higher food costs and soaring gas prices are major concerns for millions of voters. The mortgage crisis has rattled millions more. Iraq is a chronic source of concern, even anger. President Bush’s standing with voters is so low that you need to go back to President Hoover (1929-1933) and the Great Depression to find a more sour mood. Everything that can go wrong seems to have gone wrong. Now, some Republicans who originally opposed him look to a maverick to save them.
Can Senator John McCain be the Republican bright spot on election day? At first look, most analysts would say no. Look at McCain’s numbers. In January, McCain won New Hampshire, 37 percent to 32 percent, South Carolina by 33 to 30 percent and Florida, 36 to 31. On Super Tuesday, he won more than 50 percent only in states that were essentially uncontested: Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. He won Missouri by 33-32 and California by 42-35, but won big delegate margins because of the Republican Party’s winner-take-all rules. The primary results suggest that McCain has work to do to shore up his support in the GOP, much less make inroads among independent voters and Democrats.
There is more. The electorate is changing faster than either party anticipated. The change is not good news for Republicans.
Today’s voters are very different from those of four years ago, much less 25 years ago when younger voters were attracted to President Ronald Reagan and Republican rolls swelled. Three trends are coming together: ethnic diversity, declining marriage rates and changing religious beliefs. As a result, today’s voters are less white, less likely to be married and less likely to consider themselves Christians.
Combined, these trends make the outlook difficult for Republican candidates. Married white Christians have been strong supporters of the Republican Party. If you are a married white Christian, that is a much stronger predictor of your political persuasion than your educational level, sex or economic standing. But today married white Christians make up less than half of all voters and less than one fifth of voters under age 30. Since 1950, the proportion of white voters has fallen by about 15 percentage points while the proportion of married voters has fallen by about 25 and the proportion of voters who identify themselves as Christians has fallen by about 10.
Married voters still compose a large majority of voters and whites are nearly 80 percent of the electorate. Christians are still over 80 percent. But married white Christians have dropped from about 80 percent of all voters in the 1950s to just over 40 percent now. Worse for Republicans, the decline has been even more dramatic among younger voters: The proportion of married white Christians under 30 has plummeted from almost 80 percent in the 1950s to less than 20 percent today. The gap between married white Christians and all other categories of voters has increased from about 10 percent to 25 percent.
The shrinking base
As the percentage of married white Christians has been shrinking nationally, the Republican Party has actually increased its share of the electorate by increasing its support among that one category – married white Christians. Most of the increase has come among the more conservative married white Christians. But now, conservative married white Christians are so likely to be Republicans that there are few to add to the total. Moderate and liberal married white Christians are not increasing their support for Republicans and, in fact, are attracted to Democratic issues.
The problem for the Republican Party was illustrated by the results of the 2006 election. Exit polls showed that married white Christians made up just under half of all voters. They voted for Republican House candidates over Democratic candidates by 62 to 38 percent. All other voters, just over half, voted for Democratic House candidates over Republicans by an even more decisive 68 to 32 margin.
The generation gap favors the Democrats. Voters under 30 identify with the Democratic Party and vote for Democratic candidates significantly more often than older voters. Democrats enjoyed a 22 point advantage with under-30 voters as they won a big victory in 2006. Democrats envision gains of five or more Senate seats and from 12 to 30 House seats in 2008.
These are strong headwinds for McCain and all Republicans. Perhaps the maverick is up to the task. The Democrats will have their own problems with a candidate who is only now coming under intense scrutiny.
Republican leaders need to find ways to reduce the Democratic advantage among voters other than married white Christians. That will not be easy. In 2006, one research group found that 57 percent of these voters supported a woman’s right to choose an abortion under any circumstances, 66 percent opposed a constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage and 71 percent favored a single-payer health care system. Any attempt by Republican leaders to significantly increase their party’s support among voters who are not married white Christians will require changes in some of the party’s longstanding positions. The changes will frustrate and anger a large segment of the current – but ever smaller – Republican base.
Smart politicians and parties make the changes. The current crew of Republican leaders seems unable to grasp the depth of the problem, much less change things. Will they keep getting wake up calls till they go out of business?
Back from the fringes?
The seemingly clueless Republican leaders may even mistake McCain’s competitiveness as a sign that dogs do like the Republican dog food. No, they don’t. If McCain wins, he will have to work with larger Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Voters will select the Democrats’ brand because it is the only viable alternative.
McCain understands that and he is campaigning from the center as much as possible, except on Iraq, where the undecided voters seem to prefer McCain’s tough-on-national-security position. Senators Obama and Clinton have not understood that and have painted themselves into a liberal-position corner.
Years ago Mother Jones magazine noted that the future is on the fringes. The two political parties built their futures by moving toward the fringes. They may have run out of fringes. This time the future may be in the middle – just where McCain wants to be.