No, the 2012 election didn’t prove the Republican Party needs a reboot

Poli-Sci Perspective is a weekly Wonkblog feature in which Georgetown University's Dan Hopkins and George Washington University's Danny Hayes and John Sides offer an empirical perspective on the issues dominating Washington. In this edition, Sides takes issue with the idea that the 2012 election proves the Republican Party needs to remake itself. For past posts in the series, head here.

Losing a presidential election always sends a political party into paroxysms.  Accusations and recriminations abound.  2012 has been no different, with a plethora of conflicting advice being dispensed to the Republican Party.  Politico even had to create new tag to keep up with all of the debate: “GOP Civil War.”

What’s striking about this debate is how detached it is from some simple facts about the 2012 election—facts that certainly don’t imply the GOP needs to do nothing to retake the White House, but facts that suggest that the Republican Party doesn’t need an overhaul either.  Here are several claims that commentators urging a Republican re-boot sometimes make.

Claim: “By all rights, Barack Obama should have lost the 2012 election.” 

So said Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner in their piece “How to Save the Republican Party.”  They continue:

The economy during his first term in office was weak from beginning to end. Growth was anemic when not utterly static, unemployment was persistently high, and, as recently as last year, an overwhelming majority of Americans still believed we were in a recession.

This is not true, although it was hard for commentators to get right.  The forecasting model here on Wonkblog—which I helped develop—predicted an Obama win.  As did models that relied on a broader survey of economic indicators, like that of political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien (here) and that of Nate Silver.  As did a statistical averaging of all the major forecasting models.  It is hard to defeat an incumbent even in a slowly growing economy, and we could easily chalk up Romney’s loss to that fact.  This makes most of Gerson and Wehner’s advice, however sensible, beside the point.

Claim: “Romney’s biggest general-election problem is that he did not believe he could beat a GOP primary field…without tacking sharply right on key issues.”

That is from the National Journal’s Ron Brownstein, although he is far from the only one to make this claim.  And it does seem true that Romney had to tack right in the primary.  But when the general election rolled around, who did voters perceived as ideologically closer to them, on average: Romney or Obama?  Romney.

In YouGov surveys throughout the election year, voters placed Romney, Obama, and themselves on a scale ranging from “very liberal” to “very conservative.”  Here is a graph of the averages from January to Election Day:

ideologicalplacements

Although over time both Romney and Obama were perceived as moving farther away from the average voter, Romney was still closer to this voter on Election Day.  The candidate who would have benefited most from a shift to the center was Obama.

Claim: “Obama may not have created a new liberal movement—and he may not do so in the next four years. But the emerging liberal majority can.”

That is from Bob Moser of The American Prospect.  There were similar sentiments in many other places—as in this Buzzfeed headline “Welcome to Liberal America.”  The same thing was said after Obama won in 2008. For example, John Judis wrote a piece entitled “America the Liberal.”

It is certainly true that Americans are moving left on some issues—most notably same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization.  But Obama did not win the election because America is becoming more liberal, he won it despite the fact that America has become more conservative.

Voters serve as “thermostats” for public policy.  They move in the opposite direction as the party controlling the White House—to the left under Republican administrations and to the right under Democratic administrations.  It is as if when the government does too much, or is “too hot,” the public says “cool it.”  And when the government does too little, or is “too cold,” the public says “turn up the heat in here.”

So after Obama was elected in 2008, thermostatic public opinion soon moved against him.   See the graph below, which uses an omnibus measure of the public’s support for government programs that was created by political scientist James Stimson from hundreds of different survey questions.  In this graph, the absolute numbers are arbitrary; by itself, “50” doesn’t mean anything.  The key is how the numbers shift over time.

publicmood

Under Reagan, the public became more liberal, in contrast to the prevailing view that Reagan’s skills as a communicator made the public more conservative.  During the Obama administration, as during the Clinton administration, there has been another shift to the right.  Far from ushering in a liberal majority, the Obama administration has presided over a shift among Americans toward preferring less government, not more government.  Obama has helped to increase the overall conservatism of the American public more than Reagan ever did, ironically enough.

So what lessons should the GOP draw from this?  First, none of this means the GOP can nominate someone from the far right-wing of the party and expect to win in 2016.  Ideologically extreme nominees do suffer at the polls (see Table 2 in this piece by political scientist John Zaller).  Of course, the GOP already seems to know this.  In 1988, 1992,1996, 2000, 2008, and 2012, the GOP nominated a relative moderate from the field of candidates that was running.  And as history shows, that the longer the party is out of the White House, the more moderate its nominee becomes.

Second, none of this means that the GOP should rest easy or do nothing.  My goal is simply to frame the conversation within and about the Republican Party differently.  People tend to overestimate how much policy and ideology have to do with election outcomes, which is why the losing party spends so much time debating how to renovate its platform.  But the Republican Party’s loss in 2012 was predictable given only the economic fundamentals.  And those same fundamentals could easily give Republicans the presidency in 2016.

The GOP will also benefit from what political scientist Alan Abramowitz calls the “time for a change” factor: only once since the 22nd Amendment limited the president to two consecutive terms has a party held the White House for more than two terms in a row.

If that happens, perhaps we’ll realize that all this talk of a “liberal majority” or “Obama’s mandate” or even a “Democratic realignment” was overblown.  And perhaps we’ll even remember that the exact opposite argument was made in 2004, when evil genius Karl Rove was supposed to have ushered in a Republican realignment and Democrats would never win another election unless they could appeal to “values voters.”  Those predictions of a Republican majority were soon proved false.  This is why it’s premature to make similar predictions about a Democratic majority or write the GOP’s epitaph.

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