The Republican Party is resurgent—or so goes the conventional wisdom. With its gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey, a surprise Senate win in Massachusetts, an energized “tea party” base, and an administration overreaching on health care, climate change, and spending, 2010 could shape up to be 1994 all over again.
Maybe. The political landscape sure looks greener for the GOP than it did a year ago, when talk of a permanent Democratic majority was omnipresent. But before John Boehner starts measuring the drapes in the speaker’s office, or the party exults about its possibilities in 2012, it’s worth noting that some of the key trends driving President Obama’s strong victory in 2008 still exist. Republicans who want to lead a majority party again need to address them head-on.
The GOP still gets a sobering message from young voters (two-thirds of whom voted for Obama), African-Americans, and Latinos (95 percent and 67 percent went blue, respectively). But these groups have voted Democratic for decades, and their strong turnout in 2008’s historic election wasn’t replicated in fall 2009, nor is it likely to be replicated again.
The voting patterns of the college-educated are another story. This group, slowly but surely, is growing larger every year. About 30 percent of Americans twenty-five and older have at least a bachelor’s degree; in 1988, that number was only 20 percent. In 1968, it was 10 percent.
As less-educated seniors pass away and better-educated twenty- and thirtysomethings take their place in the electorate, this bloc will exert growing influence. And therein lies the distressing news for the GOP: according to exit-poll data, a majority of college-educated voters (53 percent) pulled the lever for Obama in 2008—the first time a Democratic candidate had won this key segment since the 1970s.
Some Republicans see this trend as an opportunity rather than a problem. Let the Democrats have the Starbucks set, goes the thinking, and we’ll grab working-class families. Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, for instance, wants to embrace Sam’s Club Republicans. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee pitched himself in 2008 as the guy who “looks like your co-worker, not your boss.” Even Mitt Romney blasted “Eastern elites.” And of course there’s Sarah Palin, whose entire brand is anti-intellectual.
A SMARTER BRAND OF IDENTITY POLITICS
Playing to personal identity is hardly novel, nor is it crazy. Bill Bishop and other political analysts have noted that people’s politics are as much about their lifestyle choices as their policy positions. Republicans live in exurbs and small towns, drive pickup trucks or SUVs, go to church every Sunday, and listen to country music. Well-heeled Democrats live in cities and close-in suburbs, drive hybrids or Volvos, hang out at bookshops, and frequent farmers’ markets. These are stereotypes, of course, but they also contain some truth.
Widening this cultural divide has long been part of the GOP playbook, going back to Richard Nixon’s attacks on “East Coast intellectuals” and forward to candidate Obama’s arugula-eating tendencies. But with the white working class shrinking and the educated “creative class” growing, playing the populism card looks like a strategy of subtraction rather than addition. A more enlightened approach would be to go after college-educated voters, to make the GOP safe for smarties again.
What’s needed is a full-fledged effort to cultivate “Whole Foods Republicans”—independent-minded voters who embrace a progressive lifestyle but not progressive politics. These highly educated individuals appreciate diversity and would never tell racist or homophobic jokes; they like living in walkable urban environments; they believe in environmental stewardship, community service, and a spirit of inclusion. And, yes, many shop at Whole Foods, which has become a symbol of progressive affluence but is also a good example of the free enterprise system at work. (Not to mention that its founder is a well-known libertarian who took to the op-ed page to excoriate Obama care as inimical to market principles.)
What makes these voters potential Republicans is that lifestyle choices aside, they view big government with great suspicion. No law requires someone who enjoys organic food, rides his bike to work, or wants a diverse school for his kids to also believe that the federal government should take over the health care system or waste money on thousands of social programs with no evidence of effectiveness. Nor do highly educated people have to agree that a strong national defense is harmful to the cause of peace and international cooperation.
AN END TO FAUX POPULISM
So how to woo these voters to the Republican column? The first step is to stop denigrating intelligence and education. President George W. Bush’s bantering about being a C student may have enamored the proverbial man in the street, but it surely discouraged more than a few A students from feeling like part of the team.
The same is true for Palin’s inability to name a single newspaper she reads. The GOP could stand to nominate more people who can speak eloquently on complicated policy matters.
Even more important is the party’s message on divisive social issues. When some Republicans use homophobic language, express thinly disguised contempt toward immigrants, or ridicule heartfelt concerns for the environment, they affront the values of the educated class. And they lose votes they otherwise could win.
The races in Virginia and New Jersey show what can happen when the GOP sticks to its core economic message instead of playing wedge politics. Both Republican gubernatorial candidates won majorities of college-educated voters. Their approach attracted Sam’s Club Republicans and Whole Foods Republicans alike.
It’s good news that America is becoming better educated, more inclusive, and more concerned about the environment. The Republican Party can either catch this wave or watch its historic opportunity for “resurgence” wash away with the tide.