One of the primary tasks of a historian, as I understand it, is to craft a coherent narrative out of the available facts. These narratives are important, as people are often suspicious to the point of irrationality when presented with information that contradicts their preconceptions. For this reason, I think it is worthwhile to push back on a few of the narratives that have been circulating over the past week about the reasons for the Republican defeat. A number of commentators have suggested that the Republican party’s anti-abortion position is hurting the party with social moderates, and that the party going forward needs to distance itself from pro-lifers.
One way to evaluate this advice is to identify the primary causes of the recent Republican loss. Why did 53% of voters choose Barack Obama, when 51% had voted for George Bush four years ago? It seems to me that the three primary reasons were Iraq, the economy, and the McCain campaign, in that order.
The Iraq War
The Iraq war, more than other issue, damaged Bush’s credibility. Bush had a 28% approval rating among voters according to the exit polls. There is a clear correlation between the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq in 2005-2006 and a sharp decline in Bush’s approval ratings, from which he has not recovered. Obama was wise to use “George Bush” as McCain’s nickname during the campaign. Considering there was an incumbent of McCain’s party with an approval rating of 28% in the White House, it is surprising the results of the election were not more lop-sided: a switch of 3.5% of voters would have altered the outcome.
63% of voters listed the economy as the most important issue this election, and those voters supported Barack Obama 53-44%, which accounts for roughly six points of Obama’s seven point margin of victory. Rightly or wrongly (I think erroneously), the electorate tends to blame or credit the President with the state of the economy, and, again, it was unfortunate for McCain that the incumbent was a Republican. Granted, it is possible that McCain could have mitigated this effect by handling the issue more deftly, but it certainly hurt him.
The McCain Campaign
McCain ran an unfocused, substance-free campaign. The strategy over the last two months of the campaign appeared to be avoid policy substance at all costs, while attacking Obama in a different way every week (the strategy since the campaign ended appears to be to attack Palin anonymously in a different way every other day to divert blame from the campaign architects). McCain was unable to explain basic features of his domestic policies. Why did he want to buy up home mortgages? Why was his healthcare plan better? Why was the bailout necessary if it was simply a consequence of ‘Wall Street greed’? Why did he want tax breaks for companies? Why couldn’t he promise everything Obama was? The Obama campaign had a clear, focused message: tax cuts for 95% of Americans and improved health care. McCain never answered the basic question: What are you going to do if you are elected President?
One can disagree with the relative importance of the explanations listed above, or offer new ones. But the exit polling data provides little evidence that the pro-life positions in the Republican platform were a substantial drag on the ticket last Tuesday. I have yet to see a strong case for the proposition that the appointments of Roberts and Alito, or the passage of the Partial-Birth Abortion ban have hurt the party, and Bush was elected fairly comfortable four years ago while articulating these views. Additionally, considering the fact that over half of Republicans support overturning Roe, it seems to me that any serious proposal for increasing the size of the Republican coalition should not begin with alienating one of its largest constituencies. There are any number of ways to explain the Republican defeat last Tuesday, and it is undeniable that some potential Republican voters are unsympathetic to the pro-life position, nevertheless a narrative focusing primarily on the role of pro-lifers in Tuesday’s defeat is deeply flawed.