Because that is how much the candidate we support got in an election with high unemployment, tepid growth, and high gas prices. Rerun the election with Romney as the incumbent and Obama as the challenger and how does it go? Sort of depressing isn’t it? Want to feel better? Reagan began his electoral career in the aftermath of an election in which the Republican candidate lost the popular vote by over twenty-two percent. What both situations have in common is the rough demographic strength of the two parties. In 1964 as today, the marginal voter did not consider herself a Republican or a Republican-leaner and found herself unmoved by the kinds of appeals made by conservatives of the moment. There is no longer a latent majority Republican coalition at the presidential level absent unusually favorable circumstances and the demographic trends are in the direction of further weakening. We can take solace from Reagan. Even though LBJ’s winning margin was swollen by nearly ideal circumstances, Reagan faced a similar challenge. Regan was in the position of having to assemble a majority coalition that did not yet exist. The bad news is that it has been so long since the Republicans have had to create a new electoral majority that they have forgotten how or don’t even know that they have to do so.
Take Sharron Angle. Her ideological rationale was that she was a principled fighter who was one of us (real conservatives.) The problem was that, while being a decent enough person, she was incredibly terrible at fielding critical questions or explaining herself to people who didn’t already agree with her. When she didn’t go on right-leaning outlets that spoon fed her questions, she was a mess. Her nomination would have made a lot more sense if “real conservatives” were a preexisting majority in Nevada, but they aren’t. The best electoral rationale for Angle was that America is a “center-right” country and that the lousy economy would put her over the top. What else was the median voter going to do? Vote Democrat?
Karl Rove is a different version of the same problem. Rove is much more sophisticated than Angle about swing-voters. The problem is that he is sophisticated about the swing-voters of 1988. Rove has refined his campaign strategies so well that George H. W. Bush would have won by a couple more percentage points and picked up West Virginia and Wisconsin. Rove was able to turn many of the 1988 swing voters into part of the Republican base. The problem is that what Rove was doing was reassembling the coalition that Reagan constructed even as it was in demographic decline.
For the last twenty-eight years, Republican politicians and consultants have been spending down Reagan’s political capital. Our challenge is to do what Reagan did from 1965-1984. It is to create a majority coalition (under reasonably favorable circumstances) out of our present minority status. We need to see what Reagan did when he was in the minority.