The Bigger Picture
Published on October 1st 2010 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
Back in the states the party primaries have concluded so Democratic and Republican candidates for state and federal offices are now entering the home stretch of their respective bids to win election in November. At the federal level Democrats are facing a ‘perfect storm’ of historically negative trends which has led most political observers in America to predict huge gains in the US Congress for the opposition Republican Party. The only real question is; Will Republicans successfully ride this ‘perfect storm’s’ political wave back into power?
Although most of the political analysts I respect are now predicting that Republicans will regain control of the US House of Representatives and a number of them are also predicting Republicans will win the Senate too, I’m still not so sure. Maybe this is simply wishful thinking on my part, but I believe when the dust finally settles on November 3rd, the Democratic Party will have lost a number of Congressional seats, but will still retain their majority party status in both houses of Congress, if only by a slim margin.
Make no mistake, the convergence of several historically negative voting trends augers a crushing defeat for the Democratic Party at the polls this November. But for the Republican Party to turn their mid-term election gains into a controlling position in the next Congress will require an unlikely convergence of several other factors. First and foremost, Republicans need overall voter turnout to below 39% of all eligible voters (which is likely), and the corresponding turnout of their older, conservative white voters to be above 60%.
In other words, Republicans must ensure they have a higher than normal turnout of their voters in order to overcome the fact that their base of support is the only segment of the voters that is declining as a percentage of America’s voting age population. But making sure you get your supporters to the polls on Election Day also requires a strong nation-wide organizational plan that accounts for uncontrollable variables like cold and rainy weather.
Prior to the most recent national elections in 2008, the RNC (Republican National Committee) in Washington DC had always excelled at developing very detailed get-out-the-vote plans for all of its candidates in every American state. However, for the last 18 months the RNC has been wracked by internal dissent over the actions of its controversial Chairman, Michael Steele. This turmoil at headquarters has been a huge distraction for the RNC, causing many Republican candidates to independently develop their own get-out-the-vote plans.
Another factor which can work against Republican candidates and weaken turn out of their voters is the bloody primary battles fought between establishment Republican candidates and more right wing conservatives who had the support of members of the Tea Party movement. In some cases the Tea Party candidate won the Republican primary battle while in others the more moderate establishment Republicans did. But regardless of which candidate won, an inevitable consequence of such internecine conflicts is bruised feelings on the part of those who ended up on the losing side of these intra-party battles. So persuading the loser’s supporters to vote for the victors is often the key to winning the general election.
Bereft of a single national political leader, the Republican Party also needs a unified national message or theme for its candidates that will resonate with a majority of American voters, particularly those running for Congress. But for the last 18 months, Congressional Republicans unbending opposition to all of President Obama’s proposed policies has allowed Democrats to largely succeed in portraying the Republican Party as ‘the party of no’. Since this message of rigid opposition resonates with the conservative base of the Republican Party, its candidates continued to reinforce this theme during the summer primary season.
But Republican candidates for Congress are no longer jostling with other Republicans for the support of Republican voters; they are now in the midst of running against Democrats in a general election campaign. So with the exception of a few states like Utah, where winning the Republican nomination is tantamount to winning the general election, Republicans candidates must now broaden their appeal in an effort to win the support of independent voters if they want to succeed on 2 November.
That’s because only a third of eligible voters are reliably Republican voters with a slightly larger percentage consistently voting for Democrats. So at the end of the day, success on Election Day for most Democratic and Republican candidates is dependent on garnering a majority of the votes of independents who make up the other third of the American electorate. But independent voters hew to fairly moderate political positions on most issues by and large. As a general rule they are not keen on either very conservative or very liberal political stances, which means the winners of the intra-party primary battles must ‘run to the middle’.
So the traditional general election strategy of most Democratic and Republican candidates has been to moderate or ‘paper over’ political positions that appeal to their liberal or conservative base during the general election campaign in an effort to win the support of independent voters. The Democratic candidates are well positioned to do so again this year. But because of the intra-party strife between establishment Republicans and Tea Party activists many of the Republican winners had to adopt more extreme conservative positions than they might otherwise in an effort to secure their party’s nomination. Now if they want to ‘run to the middle’ they must also weigh the risk of losing the support of Tea Party activists.
Republican Party candidates who; secure the support of their primary opponents’ voters, run aggressive get-out-the-vote campaigns, develop consistent messages about what they will do to address America’s problems rather than ‘just saying no’ to Democratic proposals, and who moderate their more extreme positions to appeal to independent voters, will do well in November. But I continue to have serious doubts enough of them will for the Republican Party to regain power in Congress.