Political Hay

Going Where the Voters Are

Republican presidential candidates need to bring their message beyond the base to the rest of the American people.

By 9.28.07

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The leading GOP contenders skipped last night's Morgan State debate focusing on the African-American community. A number of explanations were bandied about -- it is the end of the fundraising cycle where finance events get top priority, limiting the subject matter to issues affecting African Americans was thought to be unfavorable ground for Republicans, and moderator Tavis Smiley is generally viewed as unsympathetic to conservatives, having written a book entitled Hard Left: Straight Talk About the Wrongs of the Right. However, some commentators and potential candidate Newt Gingrich thought the decision unwise for a party that has great difficulty getting support from minority voters.

But there is a broader issue and campaign phenomenon at work than just this debate. The GOP candidates don't just avoid Tavis Smiley. With the exception of the omnipresent John McCain and Mike Huckabee (who never met a talk show host he didn't like), the presidential contenders do not frequent the Sunday talk shows, go on network news or subject themselves to interrogation by CNN or MSNBC reporters outside the few debates they have done.

This is a mistake. Simply put, GOP candidates are ignoring Willie Sutton's advice. Sutton of course was the prolific bank robber who was said to have replied "that's where the money is" when asked why he robbed banks. Likewise, the GOP contenders would be wise to go where the voters are, especially voters they are losing.

The latest Gallup poll painted a dismal picture. Gallup pollsters explained: "Between 2002 and today, the percentage of Americans with a favorable view of the Republican Party fell from 54.7% to 38.7% -- a 16-percentage point decline. (This was after a sharp rise in Republican Party ratings between 2001 and 2002 following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.) Over the same period, the Democrats' average favorable rating barely changed, falling by 1 percentage point (from 54.0% to 53.0%)." That's not all: 54% of those polled now think Democrats will do a better job keeping us prosperous compared to only 34% who favor Republicans. On national security, a longtime winning issue for Republicans, Democrats are favored 47-42%.

These figures should also be viewed in the context of the 2006 election in which independent voters voted approximately 2-to-1 in favor of Democrats in elections for governors, senators and congressmen. This occurred even in formerly red states like Ohio where the Democratic candidates for governor and senator swept the independent vote. In short, the GOP is losing popularity and is no longer viewed by most Americans as the party of fiscal sanity and strong defense.

It is perhaps natural in such times to go into a defensive crouch and stick to the safe confines of Fox News and friendly talk radio hosts. Particularly in a heated primary it makes perfect sense to seek out venues which have large numbers of politically active conservative listeners and viewers. But over time it is limiting and self-defeating for several reasons.

First, GOP candidates need to recapture independents and convince moderate Democrats they offer an attractive platform, not the cartoon positions attributed to them by their Democratic opponents. Explaining why the Bush tax cuts are worth keeping whether you are "rich" or not is a worthwhile and essential exercise not only to getting elected but building support for the policies they advocate.

Second, it is good practice. Debate moderators in the general election and the Washington press corps are not renowned for their sympathetic take on Republicans and conservative policies. It is helpful to practice answering the loaded question and disarming the questioner -- as Rudy Giuliani did in the Iowa debate when he questioned the reporter's premise that higher taxes would bring in more revenue. If you don't practice in the primary. it makes the general election that much tougher.

Finally, Hillary Clinton this past weekend showed that it is not so difficult for a prepared and polished candidate to survive even the toughest inquisitor on Sunday morning, Tim Russert. Having done so she can claim that "they threw everything at me" but didn't draw blood. She reached a huge audience and showed she is calm and collected under fire.

Now, it is not a good idea to go into the lion's den unarmed or unprepared, but for candidates with solid debate skills, defined policies, and a decent sense of humor it doesn't pay to hide in the safe confines of the conservative media. For individual candidates, the benefits of venturing out into the MSM world can be considerable. And if the GOP is going to start gaining back ground, showing their faces is one way they'll begin to convince the American people that they do not deserve to be banished to the political wilderness.

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