The Voters’ Message to Republicans

November 7, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in Cato​.org on November 7, 2008.

Voters sent a big message to Republicans last week. Combined with the equally large Democratic victory in 2006, Republicans have now lost the presidency, more than 50 House seats, and at least a dozen seats in the Senate in just two years. This is the biggest back‐​to‐​back defeat that any party has suffered since the 1930s.

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.”

Given a choice between two “big‐​government parties,” voters will choose the Democrats every time. If the choice included a Republican party that stands for the Reagan‐​Goldwater values of limited government and individual liberty, the outcome might be very different.

The second lesson for Republicans is that they need to expand their base beyond the Religious Right. Throughout the campaign, social conservatives continually threatened to stay home unless Republicans met this or that demand. But in the end, roughly 74 percent of white evangelicals and born‐​again Christians voted Republican in 2008, essentially in line with how they have been voting for the past two or three decades, and slightly higher than the percentage in 2004.

But it was suburbanites, independents, and others, fed up not just with the war and corruption, but also with the Republican drift toward big‐​government, who switched. In 2004, George W. Bush won suburbanites 52–47. But in 2008, suburban voters, notably wealthy, college‐​educated professionals, many of whom consider themselves moderate on social issues but economically conservative, voted for Barack Obama by a 50–48 margin. The switch among suburbanites outside Columbus, Charlotte and Indianapolis, for instance, was largely responsible for moving Ohio, North Carolina and Indiana into the Democratic column. In the wake of the Republican debacle, there will be a struggle in the Republican Party to redefine itself. Some will argue that Republicans need to become more like‐​well, Democrats, embracing a bigger and more activist government. Like Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, they will say that “the era of small government is over.” Others, like former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, will seek a closer embrace of the Religious Right, combined with an anti‐​business, anti‐​trade, anti‐​immigration economic populism. But the lesson of last week’s election is that if Republicans ever hope to again become the majority party in this country, they must instead return to an agenda based on limited government, free markets, and individual liberty. How many more defeats will it take before they hear that message?

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