The message was not a call for bigger government. In fact, even as voters were electing Barack Obama and enlarging Democratic majorities in Congress, exit polls still showed that a 49–46 percent plurality of voters believed that government was “doing too much” as opposed to “should be doing more.” Given that exit polls have a tendency to oversample Democrats, the actual margin in favor of smaller government was probably larger.
Other polls taken in the weeks leading up to the election also pointed to continued American support for smaller government. In September 2008, a Gallup poll showed that 53 percent of voters thought that “government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses,” while just 41 percent thought that “government should be doing more to solve our country’s problems.” Similarly, a Rasmussen poll taken that same month showed that by 51–43 percent voters thought that the government “has too much control over the economy.”
Indeed, the first lesson that Republicans should learn is that “big‐government conservatism” is bad politics, not just bad policy.
After eight years of a Bush administration that increased federal spending faster than any president since Lyndon Johnson, created the first new entitlement program in 40 years, increased federal control over education, and added 7,000 pages of new regulation to the Federal Register, Republicans had lost the ability to differentiate themselves from Democrats. When Republicans suffered their first big defeat in 2006, more than 65 percent of voters believed that “the Republicans used to be the party of economic growth, fiscal discipline, and limited government, but in recent years, too many Republicans in Washington have become just like the big spenders that they used to oppose.” Apparently, they didn’t learn from that defeat, and by the 2008 election that number had risen to an astounding 80 percent, according to a poll conducted for the Club for Growth. Another poll of voters in the crucial swing states of Colorado, Florida, Ohio and Virginia (all carried by Obama) found that by a 38–30 margin, voters actually thought that Democrats would do a better job than Republicans at “keep[ing] government spending under control.” That same poll showed that roughly two‐thirds of voters thought that Republicans had either “lost their way” or were simply “incompetent.”