I can’t quote chapter and verse, but sometime after Barry Goldwater’s defeat, William F. Buckley wrote that the political problem for conservatives was that there were not enough political conservatives. Whatever Goldwater’s flaws as a candidate, and whatever the difficulties that any Republican presidential candidate would have faced in 1964, the truth was that not enough people agreed with Barry Goldwater for Goldwater (or someone ideologically like Goldwater) to be elected president. Conservatives were outnumbered in the country. Conservatives had to be evangelical if they were going to win.
That was true in 1964-1965, but it was somewhat less true by 1984. Conservatives had assembled a latent center-right political majority made up of the majority right-leaning elements of the 1964 Republican party and the the partly overlapping categories of the majority of Southern whites, some urban working class whites who were largely Catholic and/or Eastern and Southern European, and white suburbanites whose parents had been Democrats. The issues that held this majority together were lower taxes (relative to the Democrats), greater defense spending (relative to the Democrats), and cultural conservatism (with crime maybe the most salient issue in this category but there were many others.)
When conservative writers said this was a “center-right” country, they had a point. When Republicans could hold this coalition together, they won. The Democrats needed for this coaltion to split, or else Democrats needed very favorable circumstances. Even then, Republicans were more consistently strong in Congress then at any time since before the Great Depression. The Republicans could win by mobilizing the Reagan coalition without having to win over much of anyone else. This coalition changed over time. The Northern urban working-class whites became less important and Southern and Border state whites became more important. What stayed the same was that many right-of-center voters were a kind of community of memory. They knew that the Republicans were the party of lower taxes, and being tough on crime and the Reagan recovery and the end of inflation and all that. Even the ones who were too young to remember were socialized by their families and communities into the narratives. And that is the point. A lot of Republican argument was about talking to people who already bought into (or were at least well aware of) the Reagan-era Republican narrative. Republican arguments worked with these groups because those arguments interacted with prior knowledge
Johan Goldberg tells us that, in one crucial way, we are back to 1964. There is no longer a latent center-right political majority out there. The median voter no longer has the context to understand and sympathize with much of what conservatives are saying. Getting the Reaganite band back together won’t work. Romney did better among white voters than any Republican in twenty-two years but he still lost by almost four percent. This doesn’t mean that assembling a new center-right political majority is impossible but as Goldberg says:
thanks in part to the myth that all that stands between conservatives and total victory is a philosophically pure GOP, party leaders suffer from a debilitating lack of trust some of it well earned from the rank and file.
But politics is about persuasion, and a party consumed by the need to prove its purity to its base is going to have a very hard time proving anything else to the rest of the country.
I would add that the Republican politicians who make lasting gains among Democratic-leaning voters are most likely going to be politicians with a great deal of credibility among the current population of self-identified conservative Republicans. Real gains are probably not going to be made in the way that many liberals fantasize, with a Republican telling off the Republican base in order to recreate the Republican party in the image of Michael Bloomberg. The gains are going to be made by a Republican who shares the policy orientation of conservatives, who talks to them respectfully but not obsequiously, who has made a sustained effort to talk to Obama voters who never heard a plausible reason to vote Republican.