One of the big riddles of the 2012 election cycle is lower white voter turnout. Why did it happen?
Rush Limbaugh blames lower white voter turnout on Mitt Romney. By Limbaugh’s reckoning, Romney simply wasn’t conservative enough to fire up the Republican base. On his radio program yesterday, Limbaugh speculated that evangelicals stayed home. After the Romney debacle, he wants to double-down on hard-right policy positions to drive up white voter turnout in the next election cycle.
Limbaugh’s solution, in short, is revival; a version of “give me that old-time religion.”
Conservative David Frum, however, thinks this won’t work, and he offers a different reason for the slump in white turnout: we’ve entered the 21st century. Republicans have embraced policies that belong to the 20th. That turns off key segments of the white voting population.
Put differently, “give me that old-time religion” no longer works, and the further we get into the 21st century, the more obvious this fact will become. Here’s Frum:
[I]t’s certainly possible for Republicans to choose to be a white person’s party. If we do so choose, however, we are also choosing to be an old person’s party. Since the elderly receive by far the largest portion of government’s benefits, an old person’s party will be drawn by almost inescapable necessity to become a big-government party. Indeed, that is just what happened in the George W. Bush years: Medicare Part D and all that.
In the Obama years, the GOP rebelled against Bush-era big government. But because it remained an old person’s party—more so than ever—the only way to reconcile the voting base and the party’s ideology was to adopt Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which loaded virtually all the burden of fiscal adjustment onto the young and the poor. And that of course intensified the party’s dependence on the old, white voters who set the cycle in motion in the first place.
In other words, Frum is pointing out a catch-22 within the Republican Party itself: in seeking the older white voter, it risks alienating the younger white voter; and in seeking the younger white voter, it risks alienating the older white voter. In both cases, the effect is a slump in white voter turnout. And that’s not the only catch-22 that presents itself to the Republican Party. Another is the divide between the white college-educated and the white less-educated:
[T]he GOP’s social conservatism has increasingly repelled college-educated voters. In 1988, college-educated whites voted for George H.W. Bush over Michael Dukakis by a margin of more than 20 points. In 2008, John McCain bested Barack Obama among college-educated whites by only 2 points. As the GOP relies more heavily on less-educated voters, it finds itself relying on a class of people who have lost ground economically. Those voters understandably tend to mistrust business. It’s an odd predicament for the party of free enterprise to base itself on the most business-skeptical voters—a predicament that cost Romney dearly in the industrial Midwest.
The ironies here are multiple. A Republican Party that blends small government advocacy with social conservatism is in danger of turning off two key groups of white voters: the elderly and the college-educated. And a Republican Party that blends big government advocacy with social libertarianism is in danger of turning off two other key groups of white voters: the young and the less-educated. In both cases, white turnout for Republican candidates gets imperiled.
So what does Frum suggest Republicans do? His path forward is to embrace the 21st century and let the white recidivist base strategy go:
On the Republican side, the road to renewal begins with this formula: 21st-century conservatism must become economically inclusive, environmentally responsible, culturally modern, and intellectually credible. […]
[A] great British conservative, the Marquess of Salisbury, warned, “The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies.” The Democrats of the 1980s and 1990s had the courage and honesty to identify which of their policies had died and then ruthlessly discard the carcasses. It falls to modern conservatives now to heed Salisbury’s advice: to abandon what is obsolete—and to meet the challenge of the new.
In other words, drop the paths that continue to be forged by Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santorum. But do you suppose the party is really capable, temperamentally or otherwise, of actually doing this?
Frum, by the way, has written a whole book on why Romney lost. That was fast.