Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Why Obama Won, And Why The GOP Is Hardly Down And Out

Reading through the punditocracy over the past few days, there are the predictable post-mortems on the election, including a lot of hand-wringing about the GOP defeat and whether Democrats have somehow built a "new majority."

Why Obama Won

Let's start with why Obama won.

Obama had a superior campaign organization, both in the primaries and the general election. As a result of that organization, he had more money and better strategy.

While other candidates flailed around, Obama had consistent, positive themes--hope and change--that guided him through a volatile political landscape. After all, when the campaign started, Iraq was the biggest issue; when it finished, the economy had completely displaced Iraq.

Obama was also a very attractive candidate. Although we've never had a black president, he nonetheless looks and sounds like a President. He's a terrific speaker--quite a contrast to the oral bumbling of the incumbent. He also projects an aura of calm and competence. Not everyone with those qualities, however, can put together--and maintain over nearly two years--such competent campaign.

Many on the right complain that the press treated Obama with kid gloves, but that's sour grapes. Obama and his campaign deftly managed the press. Obama made himself accessible, and he addressed the issues, both substantive and personal. The Bill Ayers attack, for example, failed because there simply was no evidence that Ayers had any significant influence on Obama, or would have any influence going forward.

Obama, of course, was helped by circumstances, particularly the public's immense disdain for the Bush administration. We think Hillary would've won under these circumstances as well. But not any Democrat could've won--we're pretty sure someone like Kerry or Edwards would have blown it.

Obama was also helped immensely by the three presidential debates. Before those debates, roughly 25-30% of voters had still not firmly made up their minds. Many wanted to like and support Obama, but they had reservations. The debates gave those voters much more confidence in him. Next to John McCain, Obama looked and sounded presidential. The debates gave Obama an opportunity to showcase his talents to many Americans who had not been exposed directly to him.

In short, Obama won because he was the better candidate, with the better campaign, in a year that tactically favored the Democrat in any event.

Did Obama's Election Cause A Realignment?

Now, did Obama's election create some kind of political "realignment" or signal the beginning of a new "durable" Democratic majority? Is the GOP dead?

The question practically answers itself after we look at why Obama won. In a year that doesn't tactically favor Democrats, in which the candidate is not as good and runs a poor campaign, the GOP certainly can still win.

Now Democrats are in charge, they will have to take the blame for what happens next. You can bet that the roughly six percent of voters who swung from Republican to Democrat between 2004 and 2008 are hardly liberals. They are very moderate middle-roaders who could swing back again if Democrats go too far, and especially if the economy doesn't turn around.

If history is a guide, Republicans will gain seats in Congress in 2010. If they don't, THEN we'll start to think about whether a tectonic shift has occurred.

That said, the GOP desperately needs new leadership. They need to work hard on their tone, which alienates minority voters--not just African-Americans, but Latinos, and Asian-Americans, and Indo-Americans and Arab-Americans and just about anyone who isn't a Protestant white person. It is one thing to be socially conservative, another to be xenophobic. A guy like new Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal would be a big help to the GOP on this front, but just one fellow with brown skin won't be enough.

The GOP also needs to work on its brand. Being anti-tax is fine. But the GOP needs to articulate a message that promotes COMPETENT government that is properly funded. Voters do want services from their government. In Virginia, we need better roads and transit, but the state GOP is too mired up in reproductive rights issues to care. This is a key reason why suburbanites have turned away from the Republican brand--they want the government to solve problems, not regulate their bedrooms.

In any event, any voter with a modicum of intelligence can see that all Bush did was borrow and spend. If you want smaller government, then you have to find ways for Government, through regulatory and tax policy, to mold the private sector to provide the public with what it needs.

Energy policy is a good example. Americans want clean, inexpensive energy and they really do want to break their oil addiction. Under Bush, however, tax policy heavily favored oil--not renewables--while regulatory policy encouraged Detroit to continue building inefficient SUV's, rather than cars of the future.

The biggest problem the GOP faces now is that it has driven away many of its most moderate voices. In many states, the party apparatus has been taken over by religious conservatives.

Republicans will have their chances going forward, but only if they reform from within.

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