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Eric Fehrnstrom

The case of the vanishing GOP voter

By Eric Fehrnstrom
December 17, 2008
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AN ORGANIZATION beset by declining market share is in need of radical restructuring. Meanwhile, it's desperately looking for someone, anyone, to bail it out of its current predicament.

One of the Detroit automakers? No, the national Republican Party.

Let's concede that the most remarkable thing about the 2008 presidential race is the election of our first African-American president, accomplished without social upheaval, when not too long ago blacks couldn't sit at the front of the bus in the South or drink from the same water fountain as whites. But the next most startling fact is this: The number of people who identify themselves as Republicans has gone from 36 percent in 2004 to 28 percent in 2008. This decline in market share translated into 6.3 million fewer Republican voters compared with the Bush-Kerry contest in 2004.

More than anything else, this explains the election of Barack Obama. The idea that Obama won by vastly increasing turnout is a myth.

Overall turnout as a percent of eligible voters was up slightly from 2004, but nothing to write home about. As Alex Gage of the political research firm Targetpoint Consulting points out, Republicans did just as well as Democrats in turning out their base, but "the problem for the GOP was that there were fewer core voters to mobilize on Election Day." Gage doesn't believe the Republican Party can be competitive with a "core customer base" of 25 to 30 percent.

Figuring out who are the vanishing Republican voters and why they are leaving is the most important challenge facing the party. Is it Bush fatigue? Anti-war sentiment? Moderates dissatisfied with the party's socially conservative positions?

Or is it, simply, a hunger for new ideas? Advertising wizard David Oglivy once wrote that you can judge the vitality of a company by the number of new products it brings to market. A CEO may be able to get by on products developed by his predecessors, but eventually the failure to bring forward products of his own hurts the company. The same applies to political parties, only the article of trade is not some new model of car, it's ideas.

Lower taxes, smaller government, more individual freedom, and building strong families will always form the core set of Republican principles. But the way to confront the challenge of getting healthcare to 40 million uninsured in this country is not tax credits, as John McCain argued, for the simple reason that not all the uninsured have taxable income. And fighting to lower capital gains but not offering meaningful tax relief to the middle class just reinforces the canard that Republicans are the "party of the rich." On the global stage, we all recognize the need to remain resolute in the war on terror, but our national security toolbox "must be well-equipped with more than just hammers," as Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted recently.

As the party ran out of new ideas, it lost the high ground on some of the old ones like fiscal accountability and ethics. Federal spending is now out of control. The annual federal budget deficit is closing in on $1 trillion. Our congressmen and senators were co-opted by a corrupt system. Some were marched off to jail. For a reason, Obama was viewed as "fresh" and "inspirational." Ron Kaufman, Republican National Committee member from Massachusetts, says the GOP came to Washington in the 1994 Republican revolution promising change, "but failed to deliver and so we got kicked out." Even before Colin Powell crossed party lines to endorse Obama, longtime Republican friends announced they were voting Democrat for the first time in their lives.

The good news is that the worst for Republicans did not happen. There was no major political realignment. The most awful predictions of GOP losses in the Congress did not come to pass. A few states changed from red to blue, but only a few. US Senator Saxby Chambliss cruised to victory in his runoff in Georgia, Norm Coleman looks like he'll hold on to his Senate seat in Minnesota, and Republicans just won two House seats in Louisiana. But unless the Republican Party finds its missing voters, or reaches out to new ones, there's more pain ahead.

Eric Fehrnstrom is a Republican communications consultant.

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