The difficulty in predicting the size of Republican gains next week arises from several factors that seem, thus far, to have shielded the Democrats from the full consequences of Barack Obama’s richly deserved unpopularity. One of these factors, operating mainly though not only in the Senate races, reflects closely linked political truisms: Money talks, incumbency is usually an advantage. But others that have inhibited a strong Republican wave are longstanding within the GOP and its base—problems for which there is no equivalent, or a much smaller one, among the Democrats. Here as elsewhere, analysts of American politics are often mistaken when tending to assume symmetry between the parties.
Whether Republican gains in the Senate, House and elsewhere are small or larger, they will have been lessened by Democratic advantages in ground-game work, by major GOP donors’ reluctance at least until very recently to give as much as they could, and by the disaffection many voters on the right feel toward the party’s leaders and candidates.
The ground-game disparity, an underreported story, owes much to Republican Party culture. Its volunteers, for instance—one detects this by reading relevant media articles over the years, but also from personal experience in grassroots work—seem less intensely or confidently “political,” less willing to engage in effective conversations with undecided voters. I suspect this is partly explained by most Republicans’ more tepid attitude toward power and even, relatedly, toward public advocacy. Grassroots Republicans may also be less likely to know how to address voters in person, since most have less experience in ideological discussion than the larger pool of left-leaning activists plus union operatives. Occupational differences may play a role as well. A school teacher (D) is accustomed to speaking articulately to strangers, if only to kids and parents. Similarly, he or she is used to nudging people based on real or assumed greater knowledge. A small businessperson or middle manager (R), in contrast, worries about what customers think and doesn’t want to upset anyone. That’s fine in personal and professional life but can be a serious problem in politics. Additionally, the Republican worker has the same problem as the Republican candidate in a competitive race: promoting to undecided voters (who are often also low-information voters) the more abstract conservative or libertarian message. The more concrete, simpler “progressive” one is easier to push.
Another sticking point for the Republican ground game is at the managerial level. Whether due to a distrust of activists, for cultural reasons, or because, as has frequently been argued, there isn’t much money in it for consultants, party professionals haven’t stressed direct voter contact and especially that laborious, anxiety-inducing door-knocking to the extent their Democratic counterparts have. There remains a bias toward costly TV ads and direct mail, despite a changing communications climate in which people increasingly block these, literally or psychologically.
One thing the pundits have understood well in this election cycle is the sour attitude toward the GOP among centrist voters despite Obama’s own unpopularity. But their continual discussions of the Republican “brand,” and those among party professionals, underestimate the negative reactions current GOP supporters would have to most of the tacks the party establishment envisions for winning more votes. Changes like dropping any serious opposition to abortion, pursuing an immigration policy that places the interests of illegal and would-be immigrants (or employers) first and the general public’s second, or even stressing, in deficit control, tax hikes for “the rich” more than spending restraint could all be net political losers. The talk about modifying the brand and the cautious moves in that direction are evident to ideological Republicans at the grassroots, who mostly don’t like it. Combine that distrust with, in particular, Republican officeholders’ general inability over the years to enact conservative or libertarian legislation at the federal level and you get deep frustration.
For such reasons, polling has shown that a substantially higher share of voters who identify as Democrats say their party adequately represents their interests and beliefs than is true among Republicans. That goes a long way toward explaining why Republicans—especially in the tighter races, where their candidate must either be a moderate or send such signals to the undecideds—cannot count on unified backing from the party’s own voters. They might reject the necessary “unprincipled” concessions by staying home or skipping a race on the ballot. And the problem grows when a third party or high-profile independent candidate is available. In North Carolina, conservatives and right-leaning populists who dislike the GOP have a Libertarian option. He’s quite unqualified, and Libertarians never get elected, but that doesn’t necessarily matter to voters who crave what political science calls “expressive benefits,” or in plainer terms blowing off steam. (“I just told the Republicans I quit!”) In Kansas and South Dakota, a non-conservative independent can be expected to reap some anti-system votes among the most alienated conservatives.
The Republicans will probably win these two races, but an internally stronger GOP wouldn’t have to worry about them. The North Carolina outcome is hard to predict especially because the Republican challenger, as state House speaker, actually delivered on various Republican positions in office—a dangerous business in a closely divided state, especially since the sustained, angry response among liberal activists far exceeded whatever efforts the conservatives made.
In short: The GOP faces a sharp dilemma between maintaining the bare cooperation of many in an increasingly demoralized base that has seen little progress toward conservative or libertarian reforms on the national level since at least the mid-1990s, and, on the other hand, reassuring change-averse moderates that its candidates will mostly try to manage the economy better while serving the local interests everyone is presumed to agree on. This dilemma makes effective mass messaging more difficult—which heightens the importance of the direct voter contact that seems to go against the conservative and libertarian grain.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. A version of this essay originally appeared in Enquiry, a student newspaper at Hamilton College (NY) and is reprinted by permission of the author.