Since the 2008 election, Henry Olsen has been one of the most astute observers of electoral trends. Olsen made the point that if Republicans do not substantially improve their share of the votes among nonwhites, they are going to have to win landslides among white voters. As far as I can tell, Republicans have thrown away the last three years when it comes to crafting an effective message and message delivery strategy geared to Latino voters. I wouldn’t count on Marco Rubio as VP nominee making the biggest difference in the world. When it comes to presidential contests, Republicans probably couldn’t hope to make much headway among African-Americans in 2012 regardless of what they did. But there will be 2016 and gains in later on will be built on investments (in time, energy, message delivery, crafting an issue agenda, etc.) made now. Those investments aren’t being made now of course.
So that leaves Republicans dependent on winning huge margins among white voters in the 2012 presidential race. That isn’t impossible. They could probably win in 2012 with around 60% of the white vote. That is pretty rare in presidential elections (as Olsen points out, Republicans have only matched that twice in recent history – in the 49 state landslide years of 1972 and 1984.) George W. Bush was a pretty good candidate (though it is tough to remember that now) who ran a well organized and funded campaign (including a good get out the vote operation) and won 58% of the white vote. It isn’t impossible for Republicans to get to 60%. Republicans got to the magic 60% in the 2010 elections, but that was with the Democrats holding undivided control of the elected branches of the federal government.
Getting to that 60% in 2012 is going to be tricky. As Olsen points out, “disaffected” swing working-class white voters are different in important ways from committed conservative white voters. Disaffected whites are more leery of cutting social programs and more open to some kind of tax increase (especially on high earners) as part of a budget reducing program. An economic program that reduces the deficit, and improves the conditions for economic growth and that win in 2012 is going to have to reassure these voters.
It doesn’t help that the GOP primary debate is pitched almost entirely to committed conservatives (hey, let’s cut taxes on high earners and corporations and cut entitlement spending so that we can all become entrepreneurs!) rather than to persuadable whites. It makes sense. Strongly committed conservative whites tend to be the primary electorate. The incentives align Republican presidential candidates to short-term gains and long-term self-destruction.
But incentives aren’t destiny. There is no reason that you couldn’t have a Republican candidate who could talk to committed conservatives and persuadables. That is what Reagan did in another context. You could have a candidate that could tell Republican voters that a policy agenda of tax cuts on high earners and tax increases on the working-class is insane (though do it neicely.) And there is no reason why that same candidate can’t explain to working-class voters that cuts to Social Security and Medicare will fall primarily on higher earners and that these cuts will preserve those programs while avoiding tax cuts that will destroy job creation.
Romney is actually trying to court persuadable whites. He isn’t talking about raising taxes on the middle-class or sharply cutting taxes on high earners. His Medicare reform proposal is designed to soothe those who feel most vulnerable. The results of the Ohio public employee collective bargaining referendum indicate that Romney’s instincts to avoid the issue were sound. But, by style and background, Romney might not be the strongest possible Republican candidate to appeal to disaffected working-class swing white voters. As Huckabee pointed out, Romney really does come across like the slick management consultant who comes in, recommends layoffs and walks away telling you that it was for the good of the company that your friends (or you!) lost their jobs. It also doesn’t help that Romney’s past changes of position give him little moral authority to talk turkey to committed conservatives about the limits imposed by political reality. While Romney might not be the ideal Republican candidate in some absolute sense, he has to be compared to his actual Republican opponents. And on that level, he looks, if not good, at least better than the rest.
To really depress you, here is Olsen describing the differences in policy preferences between committed conservative whites and working-class persuadable whites:
“the differences between white working-class independents and the GOP’s conservative base are becoming too substantial to ignore. The GOP base voter believes the deficit is as large a problem as the economy; the white working-class independent does not. The GOP base voter believes cutting entitlements is necessary to cut the deficit and that taxes on the rich should not be raised; the white working-class independent disagrees. The GOP base voter wants to stay in Iraq and Afghanistan; the white working-class independent wants to come home. The GOP base voter scorns Occupy Wall Street; the white working-class independent thinks the Occupiers have something of a point.
In the past, Republican politicians would respond to such differences by avoiding areas of disagreement. But that option is no longer possible. Avoiding the deficit now means America will turn into Italy later. Conservative Republicans need to understand why white working-class independents disagree with them. They need to see if there is a way to bring the white working class on board.”