Republicans built their midterm election victories by winning the suburban vote, expanding support among Hispanics and holding down the Democrats' share of the union vote, but they must attract more support from suburban working women to hold their majorities in future elections, party strategists told GOP governors today.
The strategists said more than President Bush's popularity contributed to what Gov. John G. Rowland (R-Conn.) called the "triple crown" midterm election outcome, in which Republicans emerged with the White House, both houses of Congress and a majority of the governorships.
"The voters were given a clear choice on Election Day, and on numerous issues, including issues we weren't supposed to win, voters preferred the Republican alternative," White House political director Kenneth Mehlman said.
Mehlman said post-election surveys showed that Republicans beat Democrats among voters who cited economic security as the most important issue facing the country. He also said the GOP narrowly won among seniors, despite Democratic attacks on Bush's plan for partial privatization of Social Security.
On education, where Democrats traditionally have a big advantage, Mehlman said Republicans narrowly lost among voters who said education was their top priority. Democrats and Republicans were rated evenly on the question of which party voters trust more on the issue, he said.
Matthew Dowd, polling director at the Republican National Committee, said Republicans won not because the president had coattails but because Bush's popularity created an environment in which GOP candidates could win more easily on their own -- contrary to usual conditions in the first midterm of a new presidency.
But Dowd cautioned the GOP audience that the economy and demographics could cause the party problems in future elections. Republican strength among white men younger than 50 (Republicans won about two-thirds of that group this year) masks the reality that white men are not growing as a proportion of the electorate.
The group that is growing, he said, is suburban women who work outside the home, who vote on different issues than men and who have been more Democratic in their allegiance. "That's why places around Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have gone from solid Republican areas to swing areas," he said.
Dowd repeated what he has said since Bush was elected in 2000: Unless Republicans steadily increase their share of the Hispanic vote, they will be defeated in future elections. If Republicans in 2004 win the same percentage of the white, African American and Hispanic votes as they won in 2000, he said, the GOP would lose the election "by 3 million votes."
Dowd also said the growing percentage of voters who have money invested in the stock market likely will change how perceptions of the economy are shaped. In this election, he said, 70 percent of those who voted in the midterms said they have some money in the markets, and they supported Republicans by a margin of 12 percentage points.
"The bad news is that how people judge the economy today is different from how they judged it 20 years ago," he said. He added that market fluctuations can change perceptions far more rapidly than changes in unemployment or inflation did in the past.
The panel of strategists included two Republicans who helped shape the Maryland victory of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who will be the first Republican governor there in 36 years.
Pollster Glen Bolger and media consultant Russ Schriefer said Democrats probably overestimated how the sniper shootings in the Washington area would affect the race, wrongly assuming that the killings would help Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) and hurt Ehrlich, who had said early in the campaign that he would reexamine some gun control laws.
Schriefer said the Ehrlich campaign conducted a focus group of female voters during the height of the sniper shootings and was surprised to hear the participants cite traffic, not guns, as their most important issue. "We decided they [Townsend's campaign] could talk about guns. We were going to talk about traffic," he said.
Mike Murphy, who helped Gov. Jeb Bush (R) win reelection in Florida and was a chief strategist to governor-elect Mitt Romney (R) in Massachusetts, encouraged Republicans to enjoy their victories but not to read too much into what happened this fall. With the economy struggling and a possible war with Iraq on the horizon, things can change quickly, he said.
"It was an extremely close election, and despite our victories, we got wiped out in the industrial Midwest," he said, referring to the governorships that Republicans lost in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. "So despite our successes in other areas, we should be very vigilant because it's far from certain the reelect [the 2004 campaign] will be all that easy."