What If Party Makeovers Don't Work?

What If Party Makeovers Don't Work?

By Sean Trende - August 15, 2013

This article concludes a three-part series questioning whether GOP rebranding efforts would help the party -- and if they are needed at all. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here.

5) What if party makeovers had a poor track record?

The “Great Democratic Makeover” of the early 1990s is often held up as an exemplar of what a partisan transformation can accomplish, and is usually cited when Republicans are urged to tack to the center today. As noted in the previous two pieces, there is some truth to that narrative, but it’s overstated. But let’s step back for a second. How comfortable are we basing political analysis on a single observation? What about other party comebacks? Were they due to movement toward the center? Have other makeovers resulted in comebacks?

Let’s go back eight decades. The 1932 elections are viewed by the layperson as a party rising to the challenge of the Great Depression by offering American workers a New Deal. But in truth, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s campaign wasn’t exactly an embrace of activist government. There were hints of that in some speeches, but overall FDR ran a vague campaign reminiscent of a conservative Democrat’s, excoriating Herbert Hoover for his failure to balance the budget and complaining that government at all levels “costs too much.”

In the aftermath of the ’32 blowout (when Democrats gained almost 100 seats) and the affirmation of the New Deal in the 1934 midterms (they gained another nine seats), Republicans decided they needed to change.* In 1936, they nominated a governor from the progressive wing of the party, Alf Landon of Kansas (pictured). Landon had actually broken from the party and supported Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose run in 1912, and represented an attempt by Republicans to re-energize the party’s strength in the progressive West.

The result was an even worse loss than it suffered in 1932 with the more conservative Herbert Hoover. Notwithstanding Landon’s support for organized labor and large portions of the New Deal, he won just eight electoral votes. Republicans were reduced to 88 House seats, 16 Senate seats, five governorships, and control of 21 state chambers (out of 92). Republicans stuck with the model, though. In 1940, they nominated a former Democrat (Wendell Willkie) who supported large portions of the New Deal. Likewise, Tom Dewey was a cautious centrist, whose campaign (twice) focused on his ability to manage the New Deal better than Democrats.

When Republicans did win, in 1952, there was no makeover. Conservatives had argued for one, and backed Ohio Sen. Bob Taft for president, using terms that in many ways foreshadowed today’s anti-establishment Tea Party rhetoric. Everett Dirksen, shouting from the podium and wagging his finger at Tom Dewey (in the audience) argued for the seating of delegates critical to Taft’s campaign: “I stood with you in 1940. I stood with you in 1944. I stood with you in 1948, when you gave us a candidate [drowned out by crowd] . . . . To my friends from New York, when my friend Tom Dewey was the candidate in ’44 and ’48, I tried to be one of his best campaigners. . . . Re-examine your hearts [on this delegate issue] because we followed you before, and you took us down the road to defeat! Don’t do this to us!” (See it here starting at the 16:30 mark; note the fistfight that breaks out at the end of the speech, around the 20-minute mark).

Or we can look at the state of the GOP after the 1976 elections, the modern nadir for the party. Not only did Democrats hold the presidency, a veto-proof majority in the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, there was only one state, New Hampshire, where Republicans controlled the statehouse, Senate and governorship (the state Senate was actually tied, but it elected a Republican president).

Making matters worse, the massive under-45 population had just gone Democratic; young baby boomers had actually supported George McGovern in 1972. The Republican base was old and getting older. Everett Carll Ladd, one of the preeminent psephologists of his day, commented, “The Republican party cannot find, outside of the performance of its presidential nominee, a single encouraging indicator of a general sort from its 1976 electoral performance. . . . What we see manifested here is a secular deterioration of the GOP position. The Democrats have emerged almost everywhere outside the presidential arena as the ‘everyone party.’” Of course, the GOP solution to this was not to make itself over by running to the center.

Other instances of makeovers give little guidance as to what path today's parties should take. They have won and lost while running toward and away from the center. The Democratic makeover of 1896 ended with the loss of the Northeastern cities; Democrats took control of Congress in 1910 without changing much (the Republicans fell apart); Republicans ran to the right in 1920 and notched the largest popular vote margin (in terms of percentages) in presidential history; Republicans ran hard to the right in 1994 and 2010 to take control of Congress.

At best, makeovers have a loose relationship with party comebacks. If there were a way to reduce the above to numbers, the connection between comebacks and running to the center would probably appear nonexistent.

6) What if this self-flagellation is just what losing parties inevitably do?

The idea that the Republican Party “has to broaden its appeal” if it wants to win is a truism. No matter how you look at the crosstabs, no matter how you slice and dice the electorate, Mitt Romney comes up short.

It’s always a truism for the losing party. Unsurprisingly then, it seems to inevitably give rise to suggestions about how to remake the losing party. This is complicated by the omnipresent fact that there is an almost-infinite number of ways you can rearrange the crosstabs to make the losing party victorious. For example, Romney could have won with more whites, more blacks, more Hispanics, or some combination of those. He could have won with more men, or he could have won with more women. In fact, if he’d only won the gay vote, he’d have won the popular vote (though we should keep in mind he probably would have lost the support of straight religious voters in the process).

So it isn’t surprising that we’ve seen this play out in Democratic politics every time they have lost recently. After 2000, for example, there was a fight within the party over whether Al Gore should have tried to attract a more upscale coalition or a more downscale one. The book “The Emerging Democratic Majority” was actually less a depiction of a realignment so much as an attempt to identify an ideology that could synthesize those two different visions into a coherent winning coalition.

After the 2004 elections, everyone knew, without any doubt, that Democrats needed to win “values voters” and to reach out to white men with “Confederate flags in the back of their pickup trucks.” Yet in 2008, and again in 2012, Democrats won in large part by writing these voters off.

As recently as 2011, the pages of the New Republic were filled with articles advocating either an upscale “Colorado strategy” -- essentially targeting a coalition of women, minorities, and upscale voters -- or a downscale “Ohio strategy,” trying to bring more working-class whites into the fold (my view was that Obama should use the Colorado strategy to win Ohio).

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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