How Can Republican Candidates Survive the Political Environment?
No doubt about it. The GOP brand is at an all time low, and for many reasons this should be the Democrats’ year. Consider the following: Approximately 75% of Americans say the country is on the wrong track, a sentiment which historically works against the party occupying the White House. A majority of Americans –and most Pennsylvanians for that matter – believe the Iraq war was a mistake and not worth the sacrifices. Most people think we are currently in a recession, or headed for one shortly and with record gasoline and food prices, mortgage foreclosures through the roof and problems in the credit market, people are simply looking for change. Plus, the president’s approval rating has been flat-lined near 30% for more than a year. So, when you ask Americans which party they want to win the White House, by a 10-point margin they say the Democrats. When you ask Americans which party they belong to, fewer and fewer identify as Republican. According to a recent Wall Street Journal poll, only 27% of voters have favorable views of the Republican Party, the lowest in the survey’s history. Still not convinced? In three recent special elections for Congress in Illinois, Mississippi, and Louisiana, the Democrats went 3 for 3 in districts largely considered safe for Republicans. Even GOP Congressman Tom Davis, called President Bush “radioactive” in a recent news interview when asked if GOP candidates should distance themselves from him.
Despite this bleak picture, McCain is still in a statistical dead heat with both Clinton and Obama in national polls, and is still competitive in Pennsylvania. McCain’s resilience can be attributed to many factors. As someone who has been willing to buck the Republican Party establishment, his maverick-style image has made him attractive to Independent voters, moderates and Hispanics, which has helped him get some “separation” from the low GOP brand. Plus, polls show he is fairly-well liked by most voters, has strong appeal to senior citizens and veterans and the same WSJ poll showed that among all three presidential candidates, Americans gave the highest marks to McCain on “values and background”, which the survey identified as things like honor, trustworthiness and patriotism. More recently, a series of focus groups conducted in the key battleground state of Virginia with Independent voters – who are a critical swing group in many states – showed that Independents leaned towards McCain in November. In a presidential race where people elect a person rather than a party, the fact that voters like him, trust him, and feel comfortable with him could be enough to get him elected.
So how do GOP congressional candidates or others down ballot survive? What lessons can we learn from McCain? For congressional candidates, it means GOP candidates must stand for something, and this means making sure voters know that despite the way the war in Iraq has been waged, there are dire consequences if we get out before the job is done. On taxes and the economy, it means staking out a claim that to raise taxes now – as both Obama and Clinton have called for – would further shake the economy’s expected recovery. On the economy, it means not hiding from the argument that America has largely benefited from free and fair trade; to do otherwise sends the wrong message to foreign countries who want continued access to our goods and services. [This partly explains why repealing NAFTA was a political football for Obama and Clinton in the hard-hit state of Ohio, but rarely mentioned in Texas which has mostly prospered under the agreement.] On spending, returning the GOP to the party of smaller government, including the elimination of earmarks, is a message most Americans agree with, and one the GOP has gotten away from in recent years. Plus, extensive research on GOP attitudes conducted nationally show that today’s GOP voters tend to be older, more conservative on social issues, and more likely to live in the South. As a result, the party is at risk of alienating support from Hispanics, Independents and younger voters – three constituencies essential for future growth. This means GOP candidates must find common ground on social and cultural issues like immigration, global warming, stem cell research and others that appeal to these growing constituencies. Moreover, two of these groups in particular, namely Hispanics and Independents, are ones that could put McCain over the top. One recent poll shows McCain polling at 41% with Hispanics, close to Bush’s 44% in 2004. Even the evangelical Christian vote, in the past reliably Republican, can’t be taken for granted given the growth of newer recruits with progressive-minded policies on the environment and other policies. It also means not ceding ground to the Democrats as the party best able to protect consumers, by instead voting against bills that give preferential treatment to certain corporations or industries. One recent example is the mortgage relief bill designed to help struggling homeowners keep their homes, which the GOP rightly argues runs the risk of being nothing more than a bailout for lenders and irresponsible borrowers, a concept polls show most Americans are reluctant to support. It is precisely positions like this that will help endear the GOP to voters turned off by special interests in Washington, a mantra the Democratic presidential candidates have used effectively this year.
For state legislative candidates and other down ballot candidates in normally straight-ticket GOP districts, it means being fiscally conservative on tax and spending policies, as well as a social conservative against Rendell’s liberal social agenda. In swing districts, it means working with Rendell when he is correct, on issues like education funding and lowering property taxes, but not being afraid to disagree with him when he’s wrong (like on higher personal income taxes), by voting the district on an issue-by-issue basis so you are perceived as rising above the partisan rhetoric. In addition, since TV campaigns for the presidential race will drive the information flow at the top of the ticket, it means having the polls covered on Election Day so you can maximize ticket splitting down ballot. Remember, in presidential election years turnout increases by 7,000 to 10,000 voters per district, and the increase usually favors the party winning the presidential race in that district, so it’s important to understand if you are swimming with or against the tide.