VIEWPOINT: Republicans Lost Because Voters Rejected Their Economic Vision

We’re now well into the political aftermath of the 2012 election, and the pattern of destruction is telling. In demographic after demographic, Obama defeated Romney by remarkable margins: 55 percent among women, 60 percent among voters under 30, 71 percent among Hispanic voters, and a stratospheric 93 percent among African-Americans. Rather than a fluke, the Obama coalition of 2008 looks like it’s here to stay, and the recriminations and soul-searching amongst conservatives and Republicans are in full swing.

The sudden post-election shift of major politicians and media figures on immigration reform betrayed a fear that their party’s hard-line stance wrecked its chances with Hispanics. A chorus of conservative bloggers, Republican strategists, and even what’s left of the party’s moderate politicians have laid blame on its nurturance of white nativism, its tone-deafness on women’s reproductive challenges, or the absolutism of its anti-abortion rhetoric.

There’s certainly some truth to these takes. But this notion that scattershot appeasement of various voting blocks is the path back for Republicans makes a fundamental error. It buys into conservatives’ silly caricature of Democrats as a party without a vision — “an incoherent amalgam of interest groups, most of which are vying for benefits for themselves and their members at the expense of other Americans,” as Yuval Levin bitterly put it.

There is, in fact, a fundamental vision that unites virtually all the disparate groups in Obama’s coalition. It’s sitting right there in the exit polling and the narrative of the campaign, for anyone willing to see it. Crudely put, it’s the economic issues: on the practical level, the recognition that the free market, whatever its virtues, does not deal justly with people when left to its own devices. And on the moral level, the simple, elegant, age-old conviction that we are all our brother’s keeper. And it’s the GOP’s rejection of these propositions that set it on the path to electoral defeat.Start with women: Political science suggests the gender gap between the parties first emerged in the mid-1960s, well before abortion or women’s issues hit the national stage. Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock were part of a larger wave that brought down four other GOP Senate candidates with proven electability, suggesting the cause of their demise went well beyond abortion. Plenty of women are socially conservative, their views on abortion track those of the country as a whole, and Romney actually won amongst white and married women. So what gives? As best we can tell, the emergence of entitlement programs in its full form in the 1960s. It drove a wedge between men and women, with the former continuing to support it and the latter becoming ever more intensely opposed.


Economic solidarity and social welfare are arguably the key drivers of the Hispanic vote as well. 66 percent of hispanic voters think the federal government should ensure universal access to health care, 61 percent support Obamacare, and 55 percent support government investment as economic stimulus. Over two-thirds of Hispanic voters in California said they would consider voting for a Republican who disagreed with them on immigration, but agreed with them about giving all children a first rate education. Over half said they’d consider a Republican who agreed with them on taxes and spending. In 1986, Ronald Reagan passed immigration reform and the Hispanic portion of the Republican vote promptly dropped in the next election.

The youth vote is a bit harder to pin down. They are dramatically more liberal on marriage equality, immigration, marijuana legalization, gender roles and ethnic diversity, but not abortion for instance. And we’ve all seen the “young people for Ron Paul” phenomenon. But despite their greater willingness to privatize entitlements, their widespread economic liberalism of the youth vote is undeniable.

That brings us to the question of income itself. In 2012, those making less than $50,000 a year (roughly the median income) broke for Obama by a wide margin, while those making more went for Romney a bit more narrowly. Lower income voters’ preference for the Democrat has held over the last several decades. And political scientist Andrew Gelman found that poorer voters are socially conservative but economically liberal, and it’s the latter commitment that determines their votes. Wealthier voters, meanwhile, lean conservative on economics and vote accordingly — though it’s also amongst the upper classes where the left-right split over social issues is widest and most intense.

This actually gets at an interesting complication with how the well-off vote. Higher incomes correlate with support for the GOP, but higher education also correlates with higher incomes. And education correlates with support for Democrats. This instability shows up in the polls: Obama won amongst those without a college education, those with a college degree swung for Romney, but then those with a post-graduate degree swung back for Obama. In 2008, the upper class split evenly between the two tickets while those making over $200,000 briefly abandoned McCain, then returned to Romney in 2012. The voting habbits of the highest eschelons of the economy are not well documented, but there’s plenty of circumstancial evidence they prefer the Republicans. Nonetheless, wealthy enclaves of socially liberal professionals are now breaking for Obama on a regular basis.

The Republicans have now staked their political livelihood on the energy and ferocity of a very specific block of voters: older, wealthier, whiter, staunchly socially conservative, deeply protective of their pivilege and deeply hostile to the needs of any outside group. The viewpoint that comes with this coalition apparently entails the confidence that the market on its own is already dispensing sufficient justice and the poor deserve their lot (the only way to make sense of Romney’s characterization of Obama’s policies as “gifts”) and that the everyday struggles of any American who is not wealthy or a business-owner simply has no relevance to the economy (the only way to make sense of Republicans “job creator” rhetoric). This undercuts the GOP’s ability to appeal to women, the young, and minorities. But more importantly, it cuts them off from any American who cannot count themselves amongst the economically privileged, or who has reason to fear the often amoral dynamism of the market. Meanwhile, the rise of education and urbanization is turning more of the upper class towards a liberal, compassionate and cosmopolitan social vision, eating away at the Republicans’ coalition from within. Contra their vice presidential candidate, the Republicans did indeed lose on “the budget issues.”


They could try to solve this impasse by going left on social issues. That may pick them up some women and younger voters at the margins, and would certainly help them amongst the upper classes. But the well-off aren’t that large a portion of the American populace to begin with. It’s further down the income distribution where the great scores of potential voters are. And while presumably there must be some authentically conservative alternative to Obama’s resoundingly successful approach to these voters, it’s pretty clear the GOP is at a complete loss as to what it might be.

Several writers a bit out of the conservative mainstream — Ross Douthat, Ramesh Ponnuru, and John Podhoretz, for instance — have correctly diagnosed their party’s problem. But even they could not bring themselves to repudiate Paul Ryan’s budget, the loadstar of the Republicans’ economic vision. Only Douthat offered anything close to an alternative policy path for his party, and even then an entirely anemic one.

As Josh Barro, no doctrinare leftwinger by any stretch, pointedly observed, “Any conceivable agenda that is likely to be effective in getting health care, jobs and higher wages in the hands of the American masses will be unconservative, at least on the terms by which most American conservatives define conservatism.” That catch-22 is not some random quirk of fate; it’s the inevitable logic of the moral vision the Republican base brings to America’s communal economic life. Obama won last week because he articulated an opposing philosophy.