Monday, December 29, 2008

The Shape of Things to Come

If my first blog post didn't reveal it already, I'll come out and say it: I'm a numbers guy.

And, ultimately, no matter how much I like a candidate, what matters most is if they are electable. Someway, somehow.

But to understand the concept of electability, Virginia Republicans need to understand the New Dominion that has replaced the Old.

I noted that 2008 saw an increase of over half a million voters overall in Virginia, 524,893, with that voter growth favoring Obama by almost two to one. There was no question for first time voting in the 2004 exit polls, but the raw vote totals showed Bush picking up 279,469 votes from his 2000 showing and Kerry picking up 237,452 over Gore. From 2000 to 2004, the number of voters in Virginia grew by a little less than half a million: 458,920. This indicates that not all of Kerry's gains over Gore came from new voters, some were certainly Nader voters.

Two elections cycles, both with similar increases in total voters. But two very different stories. In 2004, both parties dug down and managed to expand their base by similar numbers. With Virginia tilting Republican, it wasn't enough for John Kerry to pull off a win. But four years later, Obama pulled out almost 330,000 new voters, while McCain fell behind and increased his base by less than 200,000 new voters. Add on top of that the swing of 125,000 odd Bush-Obama, and Virginia went blue for the first time in decades.

What went wrong?

First, with Bush's historically low approval ratings, it's understandable that the Republican Party brand was tarnished in Virginia as in the rest of the country.

Second, Barack Obama's campaign knocked the socks off of John McCain's in voter registration and mobilization.

But if John McCain had had the resources to invest in boots on the ground, would he have been able to match Obama for the surge in new voters?

Or, have the Republicans in Virginia tapped out their base? Maybe there just aren't new voters out there for the current GOP to mobilize?

That's a worrying thought for Virginia Republicans.

But let's set that thought aside, for just a moment.

Looking ahead to 2009, it's helpful to look back at 2001 and 2005.

In 2001, voter turnout dropped from 2000's 68% to 46%. In 2005, turnout dropped from 71% in the 2004 election to 45%. In 2008, voter turnout in Virginia hit 75%. I mentioned that there are some who are optimistic that the Obama side of the turnout surge will fade away without Obama on the ballot. But voting can very quickly become a habit. Turnout in the 2009 election will probably be in the mid to high 40s, with the total number of voters topping 2 million.

The 2009 election will be a lower turnout affair. In many ways, it will be a contest over mobilizing the base. But with the New Dominion tilting Democratic, the Republican Party has a higher hurdle than in the past in order to win.

I'm sure that some will make the argument that the Obama voters are temporary, that McCain failed to "activate" non-voters sympathetic to the GOP, and that all we need to do in Virginia is tap into the base. 2009, 2010, 2011 will have lower turnout and without Obama on the ballot, the GOP will out compete the Democrats. By the time 2012 comes around, we'll have a new Republican nominee who will be able to match Obama's cult of personality with his (or her) own appeal to the mysterious Republican non-voters of 2008.

Because the next three elections in Virginia will not feature Obama on the ballot, giving Democrats their own concerns about how to mobilize their base without the Messiah leading them, the prescription is not entirely a bad one. But Virginia Democrats won without Obama in 2005, 2006, and 2007. There's more to worry about than just Obama. Obama winning Virginia in 2008 is not a warning, it's not the first sign of trouble. It's the end result of years of ignoring a growing problem.

I attempted to outline some of the problems with the Republican Party of Virginia in an old blog post at the Next Right. Long story short (a story I will continue to come back to as I blog), the Republican Party failed to define itself as offering an alternative to the Warner tax hikes. Ever since, the Democrats of Virginia have ran as "Mark Warner Democrats" that focus on solutions, while the Republicans are cast (by the Democrats and a willing media) as do nothing defenders of the old status quo.

Going forward, the Republican Party of Virginia should focus on connecting with its base and mobilizing conservative voters for the next three election cycles. Conservatives need to be mobilized not by defending the status quo, but applying conservative principles and conservative values to solving today's problems. But there also needs to be due diligence paid to exploiting cracks in the Democratic coalition in order to win over voters.

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