There’s a debate going on in some Republican circles over which groups of the electorate the party should target.
This debate starts off with some uncomfortable realizations. One is that while John McCain’s 46 percent share of the vote is not as dismal as some losing candidates of the past, it is still far short of a majority and does not look to be easily expanded. Yes, McCain showed strength in Jacksonian America, along the Appalachian chain and west to Arkansas and Oklahoma. And he ran well with whites in the Deep South. But these are not growing demographics.
A second uncomfortable realization is that McCain ran dismally among blacks (losing 95 percent to 4 percent, according to the Edison-Mitofsky exit poll) and voters under 30 (losing 66 percent to 32 percent). The good news for Republicans is that there’s not much room for Democrats to grow among black voters. The bad news is that voters who were under 30 in 2008 are going to be a larger and larger share of the electorate. To get a glimpse of the future, consider that McCain carried young voters in only nine states with 57 electoral votes. And in only five of those states, with 22 electoral votes, did he win more than 55 percent of the young.
A final uncomfortable realization is that the affluent suburbs have, outside the South and even in parts of the South — North Carolina’s Research Triangle, metro Orlando — become Democratic. Nationally, McCain ran even with Barack Obama among voters with incomes over $50,000 and over $100,000. He actually ran behind among voters with incomes over $200,000. Obama carried narrowly those with college degrees and ran far ahead among those with graduate degrees.
The debate among Republicans is whether to go after downscale or upscale voters. Those who argue for going downscale usually have a 2012 candidate in mind: Sarah Palin. She has an undoubted appeal to such voters and revved up part of the Republican base — cultural conservatives, and rural and small-town voters — throughout the campaign. Despite the scorn the media heaped on her, she has excellent political instincts and seems capable of developing the knowledge base that would make her a credible presidential candidate in the future.
But my examination of the exit poll results and county-by-county election returns has led me to conclude tentatively that going upscale is the right move. As David Frum has pointed out, we’re going to have more well-educated and millennial-generation voters in the future and fewer less-educated and Baby Boomers (among whom McCain ran even).
There are some immediate targets. Among all voters, Democratic House candidates won higher percentages than Obama. But voters at the low end of the age spectrum and the high end of the income and education spectrums cast higher percentages for Obama than House Democrats. They are, at the moment, Obama Republicans, hopeful that Obama can forge the bipartisan coalitions he has promised and eager for the change they think he represents. But that’s not the change that congressional Democrats have produced, at least so far.
They passed their pork-laden stimulus package in the House without a single Republican vote. This positions Republican candidates to say, more in sorrow than in anger, that congressional Democrats are preventing our president from governing as he wants to. We want to help.
Going upscale also means downplaying the cultural issues that were an important reason for Republican victories from 1980 to 2004. Here, young voters are critical, and their attitudes give guidance. They oppose criminalization of abortion, but they also disfavor it — the position of the great middle of the electorate. They tend to favor same-sex marriage — the days of winning votes by opposing it are nearing an end. And while they seem blithely confident that government action can solve problems like health care, they are also a generation that insists on choice in their personal lives. Members of the iPod generation don’t wait for their elders to tell them what the top 40 songs are. They make their own playlists.
There’s a tension here, which Republicans can exploit, between the tactics of the MyObama campaign and the policies he favors that would limit choices — one-size-fits-all government health insurance, the effective abolition of secret ballot unionization elections, and environmental policies that reduce your choice of cars and increase the price of energy.
Republicans can argue that their policies will let you choose your future. No, I don’t have a candidate in mind, and I don’t think Republicans can abandon cultural conservatives altogether. But upscale seems to me to be the way to go.