Fractures crippling the GOP

Reporting from deep red South Carolina the day after the election, Anne Hull of The Washington Post wrote: "On the road, cars still had South Carolina license tags that said 'In God We Trust.' The utility pole on U.S. 29 was still tacked with the...

Norman Ornstein

Reporting from deep red South Carolina the day after the election, Anne Hull of The Washington Post wrote: "On the road, cars still had South Carolina license tags that said 'In God We Trust.' The utility pole on U.S. 29 was still tacked with the 'Jesus Saves' sign. ... The textile mills were still empty, and dogs still barked at the ends of their chains. ... But everything was different."

In so many respects - culturally, ethnically, sociologically, internationally - the election of Barack Obama has altered the landscape. It also has changed the political terrain, making the path for Republicans to return to majority status in the electorate daunting - an uphill climb akin to scaling Mount Everest. Without pitons.

The geographic coalition Obama was able to craft is certainly exhilarating for Democrats. He held every state John Kerry captured in 2004 and added a slew of states that had seemed out of reach. That gave a kick to congressional Democrats as well. It is exceedingly rare for a party to make back-to-back gains of this year's magnitude. (We'd have to go back to the 1950s for a comparable swing.)

In the most immediate analysis, this election marked the combination of Obama's appealing persona with a national paroxysm of desire to turn the page totally on the Bush years. But long term, the results signal political shifts that have to be sobering, even chilling, for Republican partisans looking to a brighter day.

First, Obama's electoral coalition suggests deep fissures in the geographical base of the GOP. Since the 1960s, Republicans have been able to count on solid support from the South and the Rocky Mountain West, along with significant footholds in the Upper Midwest and New England. Obama's victories in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida show that the solid South is now more fluid. In the West, the Obama victories in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, along with a robust showing in Montana, are bitter reversals for Republican fortunes.


At the same time, Republicans have seen serious erosion in America's suburbs. Suburban voters gave 61 percent of their votes to the GOP in 1984 and 57 percent in 1988, but that dropped to 52 percent by 2004. This time, they fell to

48 percent, while Obama captured a majority. For the GOP, its base has been reduced to small-town and rural voters, not exactly a growth strategy.

Most ominous for the GOP is what has been happening with younger voters. As a share of the electorate, 18- to 29-year-olds grew only slightly, from 17 percent to 18 percent. But they grew in terms of numbers of voters by more than 2.2 million (perhaps as high as 4.5 million) and gave 66 percent of their votes to Obama.

Partisan identity tends to crystallize in this age range. If Obama succeeds over the next four or eight years, these voters may carry their Democratic identity through their lifetimes. For Republicans, the danger is that their only reliable voting bloc may remain older white guys. Make that older Protestant white guys. Ouch.

John McCain loves to remark that, "It is always darkest before it's totally black." And the GOP might share that sentiment now. But it can be true that it is darkest before the dawn. When Barry Goldwater got stomped by LBJ in 1964, with Democrats sweeping to swollen majorities in Congress, newspapers and analysts all over the country wrote about the impending death of the GOP. Four years later, the party captured the White House, ushering in an era in which it won seven of 10 presidential elections.

Republicans need to be more than just the only other option on the ballot in four years. They must find a message - be it a more refined, compassionate conservativism, the folksy populism of Mike Huckabee or even a fiscally conservative/ environmentally conservationist fusion - that speaks to the segments of the electorate that are growing. And then they need a leader to deliver it. At this early date after a dramatic election, there is no sign they have either.

Ornstein is a political scientist and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute

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