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Learn Or Languish

The GOP's focus on social, cultural, and religious issues cost its candidates dearly among upscale voters.

What did we learn from this election? The results certainly confirmed that Republicans are demoralized. President-elect Obama's vote total -- 66 million -- was about 4 million higher than President Bush's total of four years ago. Sen. John McCain's 58 million tally was about 1 million votes fewer than Sen. John Kerry garnered last time. As expected, overall turnout went up, but much of the gain among Democratic voters was offset by a decline among Republicans.

Although young people turned out in higher numbers than they did four years ago, the increase was proportionate with the electorate as a whole. Most non-Republican voters turned out in higher numbers this year than in 2004. One key to Barack Obama's victory, however, was his overwhelming support among voters ages 18 to 29, whom he won by 34 points, 66 percent to 32 percent; and his support among those ages 30 to 44, whom he carried by 6 points, 52 percent to 46 percent. Those numbers are ominous for Republicans looking to 2010 and beyond.


Moreover, this election reminded us yet again that organization matters. Where the huge Obama machine was at work, Democrats tended to do very well. In states that his campaign didn't target, his party fared less well. Democrats looked quite strong in some parts of the country but much less so in others, flipping five state legislative chambers into their column while losing four others. Where Obama was an asset, he really was, and where he was a liability, he really was that, too.

We also learned that there are two Souths. There is a "New South," which includes Virginia, North Carolina, and, to a lesser extent, Georgia. In this South, which has lots of suburbs, transplants, and younger college graduates, Obama and other Democrats won or ran well above the norm for their party. In the older South, which has more small-town and rural voters, fewer transplants, and a more downscale electorate, Obama actually performed worse than Kerry.

In general, in the higher-growth segments of our country, Republicans lost ground, prevailing only in small towns and rural areas. When Democrats win the suburbs, Republicans are in trouble.


Republicans have lost an enormous amount of support among upscale voters, basically just breaking even among those with household incomes above $50,000 a year, a traditional GOP stronghold. Similarly, McCain's losing to Obama among college graduates and voters who have attended some college underscores how much the GOP franchise is in trouble. My hunch is that the Republican Party's focus on social, cultural, and religious issues -- most notably, fights over embryonic-stem-cell research and Terri Schiavo -- cost its candidates dearly among upscale voters.

The question now is whether Republicans will quickly learn from their mistakes -- retooling and rebranding their party soon, putting themselves in a position to capitalize on the missteps of the Obama administration and the rest of the Democratic Party -- or will languish, reduced to waiting for the Democrats to collapse and for GOP candidates to win simply because they aren't Democrats.

Those who write off the 2008 election by saying that Republican candidates weren't conservative enough are in denial. They are political ostriches, refusing to acknowledge that the country and the electorate are changing and that old recipes don't work any more.

Obama's message and agenda were a far cry from those of the Democratic Party of a generation or two ago, but the Republican Party's message and agenda haven't changed much other than becoming even more fixated on cultural issues and tax cuts. A top Republican pollster remarked privately to me after the election that he couldn't think of a single new idea generated on the Republican side during the 2008 campaign.


The dialogue about what the Republican Party is and where it should go will be driven over the next couple of years not by Republican members of Congress or governors or the party apparatus, but by the GOP's presidential contenders for 2012, who will be fanning out across the country before the month is over. The question is whether the party's leaders and members will be listening. Will they be open to new approaches to dealing with a dramatically changed country? Or will they simply say, "Back to the Future"?

This article appears in the November 15, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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