Last Tuesday wasn’t just a decisive victory for the president, but for Democrats all over the country. The Democrats held on to their majority in the Senate, gaining two seats, and made gains in the House, knocking out prominent Tea Party favorites like Joe Walsh and Allen West. And while the balance of power remains the same, the tone of politics after the over-confident Republicans took such a severe beating is changing.
The theories of why the Republicans lost across the board have been the top news story in the week since the election. Some think that the president’s very public bipartisanship in the wake of Hurricane Sandy gave him the edge he needed to win the election, even though his poll numbers had been positive for at over a week before the storm made landfall. Another popular theory is that Obama for America’s ground game was so superior that it convinced far more Democratic voters turn out than the Romney campaign managed. Others point to the massive Republican blunders – such as the seemingly constant mentions of rape and denying rape victims abortion – that weighed on voters’ minds nearly as much as the struggling economy. And unfortunately for the Romney campaign, economic progress under the Obama administration was slow, but steady enough for voters to answer Romney’s query of whether or not they were better off than they were four years ago with a resounding yes.
But the real reason that Republicans lost the presidency and so much ground across the country is much simpler: Republicans are running on terrible ideas, and the voters know it.
Economic Policy From The ’80s
When it came to the economy, Mitt Romney advocated for the same lack of regulation and supply side economics that moderates and progressives have been rejecting for the last thirty years. Ronald Reagan’s own vice president referred to Reaganomics as “voodoo economics,” and the economic policies of the 1980s led to multiple recessions, an average unemployment rate of 7.5%, and the increase of US debt from $900 billion to over $2 trillion. But despite all of that – and despite George H.W. Bush’s reversal of Reagan tax policies that began the recovery of the early ’90s – Republicans continue to cling to this notion that supply side economics works.
In the 2000s, George W. Bush returned to the Reagan economic philosophy of cutting taxes for the wealthy, and took the philosophy even further. Bush succeeded in deregulating industries even more than his predecessor, which led to the massive economic meltdown that started in 2007. And no matter how impressive Romney’s businessman chops, voters simply weren’t willing to return to those failed policies. Romney insisted that his policies were different, made sense, and would “get America working again,” but was so cagey about his ideas that voters were forced to speculate about what those ideas might be. As Barack Obama said during the first debate, did anyone believe that Romney was refusing to tell people his ideas because they were so good?
As it turns out, the voters who were perhaps most suspicious of Romney’s economic policies were the ones who decided the election: young voters. While Republicans banked on an “enthusiasm gap” among young voters that had propelled Obama to victory in 2008, they neglected trying to actually win over young voters, instead opting to discourage them from voting for Obama. The Republican push for small government, a laser focus on reducing the size of government, and gutting pertinent programs like Pell Grants while refusing to address the problems of massive tuition increases and mounting student debt. Romney even declined to confirm or deny his support for AmeriCorps; his running mate, Paul Ryan, advocated for cutting the citizen service program in his budget, claiming that these programs would do better as volunteer initiatives. For the millenials in particular, returning to a system of deregulation and low taxes that led to the economic downturn for which they have suffered was completely unappealing. This age group is in the unique situation of reaping the brunt of the economic crisis that they had no part in; they did not elect officials that advocated for these policies, they did not have debt or sub-prime mortgages, and they came of age during the worst of the crisis.
And unsurprisingly, Romney and the Republican message lost these young voters by a landslide. Had Romney won even half of young voters in Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, he would have won the election. But for this generation, the promises of supply-side economics ring hollow and evoke memories of Bush rather than Reagan. As Senator Carl Levin would say, it was a sh—y deal – and voters knew it.
Social Policy From the 1950s
It wasn’t just with regards to the economy that Republicans were proposing bad idea after bad idea. When it came to gay rights, reproductive rights, social programs, and even equal pay, the Grand Old Party tried desperately to turn the clock back to the 1950s. Whether the GOP hoped to generate the same electoral demographics that they enjoyed in the 1950s – before the Voting Rights Act, the sexual revolution, or the 1960 presidential election that was decided by women – or genuinely believed the horrifying things they had to say, the end result was the same. Women, LGBT voters, and people of color wholeheartedly rejected Mitt Romney. Barack Obama carried unmarried women by 38 points, 93% of the African-American vote, and 69% of the Latino vote.
As much as Republicans tried to backpedal from their sexist embarrassments and Todd Akins, those issues weren’t a “distraction” from “real issues” to huge parts of the electorate – they were real issues. Nearly 40% of women who voted in swing states named abortion rights as their number one voting issue, followed closely by equal pay and healthcare. Women and people of color, who are statistically more likely than the general population to be impoverished, took umbrage at a party of predominantly wealthy white men calling those who rely on government help moochers and leeches. Beyond those characterizations, the GOP policies as outlined in Paul Ryan’s controversial budget plan included slashing the public sector. Not only are African-Americans 30% more likely to be employed in the public sector, they are also more likely to be paid wages comparable to their white counterparts than in the private sector. And for Latinos, the fastest growing racial minority in the country, Romney’s refusal to comment on the DREAM act, constant reference to undocumented immigrants as “illegal aliens,” and plans of “self-deportation” was grating and offensive.
The Republicans rolled the dice when it came to appealing to their base on social issues, and they lost – badly. Since their economic ideas were no longer convincing enough to rally the troops, they turned their sights on demonizing the historically disenfranchised. Unfortunately for them, the majority of the electorate saw this strategy for exactly what it was: a series of terrible ideas.
It’s the Occam’s Razor of election explanations, but it’s unlikely to penetrate the Republican consciousness. Until it does, the GOP is in for even more losses in the future.