Trends in American Values: 1987–2012: Partisan Polarization Surges in Bush, Obama Years
During the past century, how many Republican challengers have unseated Democratic presidents? Hint: there have been eight such bids. Answer: only one, when Ronald Reagan turned out Jimmy Carter in 1980.1
This year, the GOP will be trying again. To do so, it will have to muster a majority for Romney and Ryan; in the electoral college, of course, but also among the voters, if it wants a victory viewed as legitimate. This can’t be taken for granted, even with high unemployment and torrents of money on its side. In embarking on this review, I looked for post–World War II books examining the party’s prospects. After Dwight Eisenhower’s sweep in 1952, Louis Harris asked, Is There a Republican Majority? His answer then was “not yet,” hinging on whether the party could cement its toehold in the burgeoning suburbs. Following Richard Nixon’s win in 1968, Kevin Phillips felt he could speak of The Emerging Republican Majority, based on luring Southern Democrats and George Wallace’s adherents in the North. While those gains have been made, a hard fact is that there’s been no rise in the number of voters ready to say the GOP is their party. Nor could I find any books, even by the faithful, forecasting a grand Republican future.
Much-needed background for November’s races is in a recent report by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press titled Trends in American Values: 1987–2012, based on some 450,000 interviews over the quarter-century it covers. A useful supplement is The Oxford Handbook of American Elections and Political Behavior, with articles by sixty-five political scientists showing what their discipline can tell us. (The Pew Center, a widely respected polling organization, is no longer controlled by the Pew family, which once financed varied conservative causes, much like today’s Koch brothers.) The figures in Table A, printed here from the Pew report, had better be posted in every Romney office. Most striking, of course, is the plunge in the percentage of voters willing to call themselves Republicans. This decline has been long building, and not wholly due to George W. Bush’s record. Down to not quite a quarter of the voters, the GOP will need a surge of outside recruits if it hopes to win this year. That Democrats have held steady suggests a continuing loyalty to Obama, despite some dissent in the party’s liberal wing. (Eight years of Bill Clinton taught stalwarts they can’t expect to get all they want.) Indeed, Pew interviews found half again as many Democrats as Republicans praising their party for “standing up for its traditional positions.” Lower GOP enthusiasm probably stems from the post-primary pique of supporters of Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and especially Ron Paul, who still aren’t sure whether Mitt Romney believes in anything.
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