This is the ninth in an occasional series of exclusive articles in which leading conservatives who worked for Ronald Reagan explain how they believe the principles of Reagan conservatism ought to be applied today and in the coming years. This week, David Keene, who served as Southern regional political director for the 1976 Reagan campaign, addresses the GOP’s need to regain the votes of the Reagan Democrats.
Political analysts have been pawing through the results of the November elections to find out just why the Republicans lost and, just as importantly, whom they lost.
Conservative leaders had been warning the Bush White House for several years that the President’s policies both at home and abroad were alienating significant parts of the conservative GOP base. They agreed that unless steps were taken to solidify that base, there would ultimately be electoral consequences as voters who share Republican or conservative values, but aren’t Republicans first, decide to abandon the GOP or simply to stay home.
Mainstream GOP leaders dismissed these concerns and seemed to honestly believe that if they could simply raise and spend enough money and put together a state-of-the-art “get-out-the-vote” campaign they wouldn’t have to worry about what policies they were pursuing. They were proven tragically wrong.
The GOP raised and spent a lot of money. In addition, they funneled billions of dollars in taxpayer funds to targeted House districts and states in which their Senate candidates were in tight races, and then organized thousands of volunteers to make calls to targeted Republican voters.
The volunteers making those calls in the few days before the November election began to realize that even their targeted voters weren’t always with them. One volunteer who made hundreds of calls as part of the GOP’s vaunted “72-Hour Program” told me that a small but significant number of previously loyal GOP voters were telling her they would vote, but not for Republican candidates.
“Too many of our voters felt betrayed and were ready to lash out at those who they blamed for the betrayal,” she said. Thus, even in areas where the Republican machinery was making the contacts their “book” told them they needed to win, they found themselves falling short at the polls.
Some deserters were traditional Republicans of long standing, but many were newer Republicans attracted to the GOP during and immediately following the Reagan years. They came from Democratic families and were part of the voter group once called “Reagan Democrats” who were attracted to “the party of bold colors” that Ronald Reagan led into the ’80s.
The winning electoral coalition that Reagan put together in 1980 and that survived into the new century consisted not just of traditional Republicans, but of Republicans and Democrats who shared the Reaganite concerns about big government, high taxes, cultural degeneration and the need for strength in a dangerous world.
The move to the GOP was not an easy one. Their parents and grandparents were, in most cases, strong Democrats. Many of them were union members or lived in areas where voting anything other than a straight Democratic ticket was considered heresy. But millions of them did move. They were attracted by Reagan’s personality and, more importantly, by his ability to articulate shared values that convinced them that he and his new Republican Party were worth supporting.