Karl Rove told the Republicans it wasn’t going to be like this. He was to mastermind the explosion of the Republican “base,” making the G.O.P. into the default party in power and relegating the Democrats to permanent minority status. The much-vaunted independent swing vote would fade to irrelevance.
Of course, that’s not the way things turned out.
In last year’s election, independent voters in state after state voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates, boosting them to control of the Senate and House as well as victory in dozens of state races. In states like New Hampshire, Virginia, Ohio and Colorado, Democrats won among independents—who constituted 26 percent of the electorate—by massive margins.
There’s no sign that things are going to be any different next year.
As the panicky Republican Congressional delegation that paid a visit to President Bush last week was well aware, the Iraq War is bleeding the Republican Party dry. Once again, the most important indicator of this hemorrhaging of support is the independent vote: According to an April CBS–New York Times poll, unaffiliated voters opposed George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq War by a margin of 74 to 19 percent.
Having lost the advantage on national security with independents, the G.O.P. also forfeited its reputation as the party of tight fiscal managers. Bridges and railroads “to nowhere,” “earmarks” and “K Street” all entered into the public vocabulary. Independents reacted with horror and shock—much as they did with the Democratic Congressional scandals in the 90’s—to the Republican excesses.
Meanwhile, the Democrats—led by Congressional campaign-committee chairs Rahm Emanuel and Charles Schumer—have figured out how to pick candidates who can appeal to independent voters in red states. Exhibit A is Jim Webb, the former Marine who ran circles (in his military boots) around the hapless incumbent, Senator George Allen.
The state parties have caught on as well, with conservative-tinged Democrats running and winning in governors’ races in key battleground states like Pennsylvania and Colorado. In many of last year’s most high-profile races, Democrats carried about two-thirds of the independent vote.
Yet somehow, Republicans have learned the wrong lesson from the beating they took in 2006. Talk at conservative conclaves like the GOPAC convention and the National Review Institute gathering has been dominated by the idea that the Republican candidates who lost were not conservative enough—that they did not stress social issues or were simply unclear in what they stood for.
In actuality, though, Republicans did fairly well with conservatives; it was the rest of the country that fled to the other party.