Are There Really Two Republican Parties? And If So, Why?

Following the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee commissioned a group of Republicans to study the results of that election and make recommendations as to how the GOP can do better in future cycles. The resulting report, which you can read here, has been roundly criticized by many conservatives, sometimes unfairly, in my view. I wrote about the report’s recommendations on immigration here. But as far as I know, no one has commented on one obvious and central question raised by the report.

One of the report’s key premises is that there are two distinct Republican parties: state and local Republicans, who are doing remarkably well, and national Republicans, who suffer from a severe image deficit:

The GOP today is a tale of two parties. One of them, the gubernatorial wing, is growing and successful. The other, the federal wing, is increasingly marginalizing itself, and unless changes are made, it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election
in the near future. …

At the federal level, much of what Republicans are doing is not working beyond the core constituencies that make up the Party. On the state level, however, it is a different story.

Republicans hold governorships in 30 states with 315 electoral votes, the most governors either party has had in 12 years, and four short of the all-time GOP high of 34 governors who served in the 1920s.

Republican governors are America’s reformers in chief. They continue to deliver on conservative promises of reducing the size of government while making people’s lives better. They routinely win a much larger share of the minority vote than GOP presidential candidates, demonstrating an appeal that goes beyond the base of the Party.

It is time for Republicans on the federal level to learn from successful Republicans on the state level.

The report is unsparing in its depiction of national Republicans’ image with voters:

As part of the Growth and Opportunity Project’s effort, focus groups were conducted in Columbus, Ohio, and Des Moines, Iowa, to listen to voters who used to consider themselves Republicans. These are voters who recently left the Party.

Asked to describe Republicans, they said that the Party is “scary,” “narrow minded,” and “out of touch” and that we were a Party of “stuffy old men.” This is consistent with the findings of other post-election surveys.

But there is a blindingly obvious question, which the authors of the RNC report never ask, let alone answer: how can it be that voters who think the GOP is “scary,” “narrow minded” and “out of touch” nevertheless elect Republicans as governors in 30 states? How can such a pathetic excuse for a party control more state legislatures than at any time since 1952?

The RNC report offers suggestions as to how national Republicans can broaden their appeal, and also says that presidential and Congressional candidates should “learn from successful Republicans on the state level,” but it doesn’t attempt to describe what it is that state candidates are doing that explains the difference in the party’s fortunes at the state and national levels. Indeed, if we talk about the national level, it is necessary to distinguish between presidential candidates and Congressional candidates. While the GOP has lost two consecutive presidential elections, it romped in 2010 and gained control of the House. Republicans retained the House in 2012, and, while Senate results were disappointing, this was due at least in part to the nomination of some weak candidates, in particular Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock. (It is noteworthy that, while the RNC report recommends reliance on primaries rather than caucuses, all of the unusually weak Republican Senate candidates of the last two cycles–Akin, Mourdock, Christine O’Donnell–have won primaries, not caucuses.)

There is another, more optimistic way of looking at the last few election cycles. Why have Republicans done well at the state level, as well as at the national level in 2004 and 2010, while faring relatively poorly in 2008 and 2012? One explanation is that the Democrats had Barack Obama at the top of the ticket in 2008 and 2012. I am no fan of President Obama, but the appeal of electing the First Black President in 2008 was obvious. Given the other circumstances of that election, most notably the financial collapse of 2008, Obama’s election was almost a foregone conclusion.

I, and many others, approached the 2012 election logically: I thought, it is easy to understand why lots of minority voters, as well as whites, thought it was a big deal to elect the First Black President in 2008, but they won’t feel obligated to do it again. Given Obama’s awful record in office, I thought that many millions of voters would consider the First Black President milestone to have been accomplished, and would either stay home or vote for Romney in 2012.

But that turned out to be wrong. Not with respect to whites, whom Romney carried by an overwhelming margin, but with respect to minority voters. The RNC report notes the conflict among pollsters in 2012. Some, including those employed by the Romney campaign, saw a dead heat or a Romney victory; others, mostly pollsters aligned with the Democrats, saw a reasonably clear Obama victory. The difference was in the turnout models. The pollsters who turned out to be right were those who foresaw that Obama’s appeal with minority voters had not abated, despite his terrible record in office, which hurt them more than anyone. Moreover, Obama’s appeal was not limited to African-Americans, who legitimately, as I saw it, could view him as their guy. It extended to Hispanics and even Asians, many of whom evidently saw great significance in the fact of a dark-skinned president, regardless of his record on poverty and unemployment. So the Democrats had the last laugh.

If this interpretation is correct, and I think it is consistent with the data, then the RNC report’s recommendations with respect to gay marriage and immigration are mostly beside the point. While public opinion is moving rather rapidly, and I, among many others, have argued for a somewhat different approach to the issue, gay marriage remains a 50/50 proposition in the polls, at best. Likewise with immigration; to take just one example, this Pew poll, released on Thursday, finds that only 43% want illegal immigrants to be eligible for citizenship.

I don’t disagree that Republicans need to make their case better to ethnic minorities as well as young voters. And I agree wholeheartedly with the report’s observation that this cannot be done during an election cycle only, but that building roots among these groups of voters is an organic project that transcends elections and will take years to effectuate. But the reality is that in most states, which include a majority of Americans, voters are already pulling the lever for Republicans. The idea that we are “scary” and “out of touch” is belied by the daily realities in at least 30 states. It may well be that the setbacks Republicans have experienced at the national level in 2008 and 2012 (but not 2010) were due, more than anything else, to the presence of the First Black President at the head of the Democratic ticket–a factor that carried more emotional resonance with minority voters than most of us realized, especially last year. If that is the case, Republicans can reasonably expect to do better in coming election cycles even if, like the leopard, they do not choose to change their spots.

Earlier today I offered a more pessimistic view of the current state of play between the parties. The 2014 election will go a long way toward clarifying whether the optimistic or the pessimistic perspective is the right one.