Republicans Should Move to Middle and Shouldn’t

Republicans have to moderate their social views but stay the course on economic issues.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney prepares to deliver a speech in Nevada, February 8
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney prepares to deliver a speech in Nevada, February 8 (Romney for President)

Mitt Romney lost Tuesday’s presidential election in the United States because the incumbent did particularly well among racial minorities, young voters and women — three groups that are likely to determine the outcome of future elections as well. For Republicans to appeal to them and remain competitive, they have to moderate their positions on some issues but stay the course on others.

If Tuesday’s election had been a referendum on President Barack Obama, there’s a good chance that Romney would have won. A slim majority of voters indicated that they trusted him more to handle the economy than the Democrat. Republicans won overwhelmingly in 2010’s congressional and gubernatorial elections because voters trusted them more to reduce the deficit and boost employment than the president’s party. But on cultural and social issues, public opinion increasingly favors Democrats over Republicans.

More than 80 percent of Americans believes that global warming is real. A majority recognizes that human activity contributes to it. More Americans now support gay marriage than don’t. An overwhelming 67 percent of Americans favored letting gays serve openly in the military.

Republicans’ opposition to gay marriage, even civil unions, as well as their skepticism of climate change doesn’t bode well for the future. As former Utah governor and candidate for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination Jon Huntsman told ABC’s This Week in August of last year, “The minute that the Republican Party becomes the anti-science party, we have a huge problem.” Especially among young voters who turned out in slightly greater numbers this year than in 2008 to support the president by a six to four margin.

Among women, the uncompromising views of some Republicans on abortion is equally problematic. Senate candidate Todd Akin’s 15 percentage point defeat against the Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill in Missouri was emblematic. Akin, who argued that abortion should be illegal regardless of the circumstances, suggested in an interview in August of this year that there was a distinction between “legitimate” and illegitimate rape. While he was widely condemned by senior Republicans, including Mitt Romney, for this controversial statement, the Democrats successfully sowed doubt into the minds of women voters about the party’s abortion views. As in 2008, Obama carried more than half of the female electorate on Tuesday.

2012 American presidential election map, showing support for Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, per state.

A third group that Republicans must move in their favor is Hispanics. The party should have an advantage among these voters, many of whom are Catholics and more socially conservative than other racial minorities, but according to exit polls Romney won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, down from 31 percent for John McCain in 2008 and 45 percent for George W. Bush in 2004. Whites, by contrast, overwhelmingly backed the Republican by 61 percent. But the white electorate is shrinking.

New Mexico, formerly a swing state, is already considered safe for the Democrats due to the large Hispanic population there. Colorado, Florida and ultimately even Republican bastions like Arizona and Texas could move in the Democrats’ direction as white seniors die out and the Hispanic populations increase.

Republicans in those southern states are well aware of it. It is why Texas governor Rick Perry, otherwise a staunch social conservative, was among the most moderate candidates when it came to immigration reform during the Republican primary election. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush has repeatedly cautioned his party against alienating the Latino vote. Yet in order to appeal to the right, Romney adopted a most reactionary position on immigration before he was nominated. It may have cost him the election.

Left-wing commentators will argue that Republicans should move to the middle across the board, including on entitlement and tax reform where the two major parties haven’t been able to find common ground in the last two years. That would be a mistake.

As recently as in 2010, Republicans won across the country, including in left leaning states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, when they ran as small-government conservatives. Governors Chris Christie and Scott Walker and Pennsylvania senator Pat Toomey enjoy high approval ratings, not because they crusade against abortion or deny climate change but because they emphasize fiscal conservatism, limited government and free enterprise.

If Republicans don’t learn from this and wage more culture wars instead, they will likely continue to lose. The demographics and sensibilities of the nation are simply shifting in the Democrats’ favor.

This article also appeared at Sharnoff’s Global Views, November 9, 2012.