What does it mean? Not a whole lot.
There is now a lot of soul-searching about the direction of the Republican Party and much doubting of its future viability if does not adapt itself in some way to an electorate that has (it is said) fundamentally shifted over the last few decades. I am a scientist and not a political expert, but science has something to teach us that may be of relevance here: don’t over-interpret the data.
The tendency of “pundits” to over-interpret shows itself with almost every election. Each time a party is ejected from the White House or isn’t, it is supposedly because some new and enduring coalition has been formed and some old coalition has finally disintegrated, or because the nation has turned against (or toward) social conservatism, or an era of Big Government has ended or just started. All nonsense.
The obvious fact is that the national electorate is an extremely heterogeneous lot and votes on the basis of innumerable disparate considerations. This candidate is “presidential,” or sympathizes with people like me, or is hostile to Israel, or is going to cut taxes, or is pro-life, or is going to create green jobs (whatever the heck those are), or has a mellifluous voice¸ or is charismatic, or is weak on defense, or has an annoying voice, and so on. Most voters do not have fully thought-out or consistent positions on most issues, which is why pollsters get different results depending on how they phrase questions or on the order in which they ask them. They want more spending, lower taxes, and less debt all at the same time. Reading into a 52 percent or even a 60 percent victory some kind of Rousseauean “General Will” is absurd.
Why did President Obama win re-election? There are some very obvious reasons that have nothing to do with ideology and in light of which the outcome is not particularly surprising. First, there is the fact that since the days of Grover Cleveland, about 30 elections ago, there has been only one case where a party held the White House for just four years: Jimmy Carter, and he had the Iran hostage fiasco, high inflation, high interest rates, and high unemployment. It takes a LOT to make it happen. Now you might say that 8 percent unemployment should have been enough to do it. But this brings us to the second reason. People feel that President Obama was dealt a bad economic hand and so are less inclined to want to punish him for the state of the economy than they were in the case of Carter. Third, people have grown weary of war, and they hear less about war now (partly thanks to the media reporting on it less). And then there is the fact that most people seem to find Obama’s personality appealing.
Is this election somehow a repudiation of conservatism or the ideas of the Republican Party? If so, it is hard to understand why the GOP managed to win a sizable majority of House races. Moreover, it is generally the case that when a party has held the White House for four years they not only retain it, but get a larger margin of victory than the first time, as in 2004, 1996, 1984, 1972, 1964, 1956, 1936, and 1924. You have to go all the way back to Woodrow Wilson’s re-election to find a counterexample. (And even that is not much of one, because his first victory was in a three-way race in which his opponents, Taft and Teddy Roosevelt, split the Republican vote.) The fact that Pres. Obama’s margin this time is much smaller (almost unprecedented) tells us that he survived, not that he or his ideology has enjoyed some kind of rousing vindication.
This is not to say that conservatives shouldn’t do some hard thinking. But it is to say that we should not read too much into the result.