Floyd J. McKay / Guest columnist
The Republicans need more than a (right) wing and a prayer
The achilles' heel of the Republican "base" constructed by Karl Rove for the 2000 election and continued through 2006 was always that the...
The Achilles' heel of the Republican "base" constructed by Karl Rove for the 2000 election and continued through 2006 was always that the strategy relied on a rock-hard minority propelled into majority status by organization and cash.
For three election cycles, it worked. Republicans, led by President George W. Bush, used a huge fundraising advantage from the nation's wealthiest to fund a campaign appealing to white evangelical Christians, most of whom are not wealthy. With traditional GOP voters, they got to 51 percent.
White evangelicals make up as much as a third of this nation — a huge segment, but not uniformly con-servative. The voting turnout of this grouping is 23 or 24 percent of actual voters, based on exit polling in the past two elections.
Among that 24 percent, some 72 percent in 2004 and 70 percent in 2006 voted Republican. A very loyal base, but far below a majority of the American electorate.
The best that can be done with a base of this size is to find ways to pump it up to 51 percent, which was Rove's strategy — get one vote above 50 percent, call it a mandate, give your financiers tax breaks and tell the evangelical base how important it is.
The danger in this system is that even if you hold 70-plus percent of this base, you are still short of a majority, and if you emphasize too much your dedication to the values of the base, you will alienate moderates.
That happened on Nov. 7, and all the polls show moderates fled the GOP in droves and left the white evangelical base — loyal to the end — short of friends outside the South.
To add to the insult, the normally reliable financial edge that Republicans have enjoyed since the days of J.P. Morgan is no longer assured. Democratic candidates in many key races matched or (if they were incumbents) exceeded Republicans in raising funds. Now, with control of both houses of Congress, Democrats are in position to do even better in 2008. Lobby groups tend to love incumbents of either party, because (even in 2006) they win re-election by overwhelming rates.
Some traditional Republican financiers found the current Republican White House and Congress shy on traditional values of low spending and small government, and withheld checks. New-style millionaires have appeared in the high-tech industries in particular, and many see Democrats as more friendly to science and higher education, vital for American competitiveness. Voters earning more than $100,000 still voted Republican by a 52-48 margin, but that is the smallest margin since at least 1988.
Republicans have also lost their edge among better-educated Americans; college grads were split 50-50 and those with advanced degrees voted 59-41 for the Democrats. The latter is the highest since at least 1986. There are plenty of advanced degrees teaching literature and sociology, of course, but more work for law firms, big business and high-tech employers. These folks vote and they also decide where business places its campaign funds. Forty-five percent of 2006 voters have a college degree or more.
If the GOP loses its traditional strength among high-income voters and among college graduates, it is in serious trouble, more trouble than a 100-percent vote from white evangelicals could reverse.
By pursuing rhetoric and policies that targeted the religious right, Bush and Rove turned off many others, certainly including the well-educated, who reacted to their anti-science opposition to stem-cell research and global warming.
The turning point, I believe, was a more emotional issue, that of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who brought Bush and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, to the barricades in 2005 to back legislation keeping her on life-support over the protests of her harassed husband. Autopsies showed the woman's brain was in a "vegetative state," and the cynical appeal to religious conservatives turned off huge numbers of voters. Polling at the time showed most Americans, of both parties, rejected the Bushes' campaign to "save" Schiavo, and were disgusted at the raw partisan appeal in a tragic case.
The 2006 election revealed Republicans are still in favor with white evangelical Christians, rural voters and the South — obviously, there is a huge overlap of these groups.
This is not a realistic base on which to construct a revival of the party whose leaders bragged a few years ago of a permanent Republican majority. Yet, having built loyalty among conservative Christians, the party cannot ignore them as it tries to moderate its appeal. Rove's strategy has turned on him and his party.
Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at email@example.com