- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Winning campaigns rarely use the rear-view mirror to find their way forward. That’s why I’m skeptical when strategists suggest Republicans need to only look back to Ronald Reagan as a model for victory in 2008. Keep in mind, no American under 45 years old was even old enough to vote in 1980.

But if we retract the lens a little further to examine the current electoral landscape, there are some remarkable similarities between where Republicans stood with the voters in the late 1970s — right before President Reagan won his first White House term — and the party’s positioning on the eve of the 2008 election. These parallels deserve attention.

As I wrote in my column last week, Republican “brand distress” led to their loss of the congressional majority in the 2006 election. Party identification numbers tell the story. Self-identified “strong Republicans” experienced the largest decline of any partisan category between 2004 and 2006, while the number of independents grew the most. Plagued by scandal, disappointment about profligate spending and the Iraq war, some previously identifying Republican shifted into the independent category. As a result, the proportion of voters solidly in the Republican camp declined and the number of independents bumped up. None of these shifts were dramatic, produced significant electoral swings on the margin.

Now look back at the mid-1970s. Following Richard Nixon’s landslide victory in 1972, the party also encountered some rough electoral sledding. Watergate, the 1974 congressional election — where Republicans lost 49 net seats in the House — and President Gerald Ford’s defeat in 1976, were all causes and consequences of a declining Republican brand. Republicans seemed resigned to their role as a permanent minority in the late 1970s. With neither the White House nor either branch of Congress, the future looked bleak. Continuing losses became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What happened to partisan self-identification during this period? Interestingly it looks a lot like the shifts that occurred over the past several years. Not only did the number of self-identified independents rise during the mid-1970s (similar to what occurred between 2004 and 2006), but these transformations look like they happened at the expense of Republicans. Surveys compiled by the University of Michigan’s American National Election Study (ANES) series support both conclusions.

According to the ANES, the size of the pure independent category reached its 50-year high point in the 1974, 1976 and 1978 surveys. Moreover, the number of self-identified Republicans dipped during the same period to one of its lowest points (in 1978 the number of Republicans slumped to 30 percent, equal to the other lowest percent —1964, following Barry Goldwater’s landslide loss). After 1980, the Republican numbers began to rise again and the number of self-identified independents started to decline. Those numbers increased even more when Reagan was re-elected in 1984 and reached a high point in 1994 when Republicans won control of the House and Senate.

But when Ronald Reagan first ran for office in the late 1970s he faced an electorate that looks more like today than the partisan universe President Bush confronted in 2004. And one of the major differences was that “independents” played a more pivotal role for Mr. Reagan in 1980 than they did for Mr. Bush in 2004.

In fact, in 2004 Mr. Bush was the first Republican president to win the White House in modern times, while losing the independent vote. Given the changes in partisan self-identification (a Republican “base vote” that looks more like 1980 than 2004), Sen. John McCain cannot win the White House without capturing the independent vote. Mr. McCain, like Mr. Reagan, simply doesn’t have enough Republican partisans to carry the day.

Mr. McCain’s track record and personal style fit well into today’s new electoral profile. Working with a smaller Republican base universe and a larger group of independent voters — and possibly an augmented contingent of disgruntled Democrats, bitter after a long and divisive primary — the Arizona senator is positioned to perform well in this environment.

While this election is about change and the future, there are some aspects of the current electoral landscape that resemble 1980 all over again. Looking through this rearview mirror won’t guarantee an election win. But due to a nominee who knows this new terrain, it does give the Republicans hope and a road map to potential victory.


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