Okay, I've been eating lots of crow (followed by desserts of humble pie) this week for ruining, by a hideously wide margin, my previously unblemished record of predicting election results: I could not have been more wrong.
What's important for conservatives, of course, is not that I in particular was wrong, but why I was wrong -- or, put another way, what it was that actually happened in the elections last week. My own mistaken assumptions actually go a long way toward explaining just how deep the hole is that conservatives are now in...and, if looked at correctly, what conservatives should do to recover.
The key assumption I made in analyzing the races -- an assumption made a solid month before the election (here, here, here, and especially here) -- was that the biggest block of voters still up for grabs was composed of a combination of disgruntled conservatives and normally right-leaning independents whose main choice lay between holding their noses to vote Republican or, alternatively, just staying home. Well-worded polls and anecdotal evidence both seemed to support this assumption.
Everybody really angry about Iraq or other GOP failings, I figured, already was showing up in the polls as being committed for the Democrats. Truly independent voters would, I assumed, do as they have almost always done in mid-term elections, especially elections in which negativity overwhelmingly outweighed any discernibly positive agenda: Wish a pox on both parties and ignore the voting booth altogether. It was obvious that truly centrist "swing voters" were leaning heavily against Republicans, but there seemed no good reason to expect them actually to go to the polls.
Late-deciding voters, therefore, would disproportionately come from among the former group, i.e. the disgruntled conservatives and the right-leaning independents. In the end, I thought, they would go with the safety of the "devil they knew" (as the expression goes) over the really, really scary devils on the left whose entire worldview differed from the voting bloc in question.
Especially after John Kerry belittled the troops, the unemployment rate dropped, and Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death, I expected late-deciders to favor Republicans by as many as 25 percentage points -- still not enough for a winning election cycle, but enough to keep the number of losses manageable. The tightening "generic ballot" in four separate polls on the final weekend seemed to confirm that expectation.
But that's not what happened. The Rove/Mehlman turnout machine worked fairly well, but not as well as had been hoped. (This is no slam on their organization, which really was terrific -- but not even the best-organized get-out-the-vote effort can get out voters who flat-out refuse to vote.) But the turnout among independent voters surged. And it surged among just those groups I expected to stay home: the ones disgusted by the whole Washington scene. Republican pollster Ed Goeas reported that Republicans lost some 18 seats by just a few small percentage points -- and that the surge in independent voting made the difference in most of them.
Younger voters in particular turned out in numbers unprecedented for any mid-term election in recent memory, and they voted heavily Democratic. And exit polls showed that among those late-deciders who made their choices only in the final three days, the Democrats won a 15-point edge. (That's a whopping 40 points better for the Democrats than I had projected!)
In the end, and in the aggregate, the results weren't close. Two-term senator Rick Santorum lost not by six or eight points, but by a devastating 17 percent. Maryland's vaunted Michael Steele lost by 10 full points. In the perennial battleground states of Michigan, Minnesota, and Washington, the GOP's losing margins in Senate races (all with impressive candidates) were 16, 20, and 19 points, respectively.
And so on.
WHAT THIS MEANS IS THAT Republicans truly have "lost the middle" of the electorate in overwhelming fashion. Not only did the swing voters go for the Democrats by huge percentages, but they found the motivation to turn out in the greatest numbers in a quarter-century.
Because, for better or worse, the Republican Party is the more conservative of the two major parties (which of course isn't saying much), Republican losses so large are by extension conservative losses.
The obvious and incontrovertible conclusion is that conservatives must "move to the middle" in order to recapture the newly energized, and newly antagonized, independent voters.
But before you conservative readers have a conniption fit, let me continue: The best way to move to the middle is to re-learn Ronald Reagan's knack for attracting the middle without sacrificing conservative principles. Indeed, it is possible, without any contradiction, to move to the middle and to stand up for the right at the same time.
The first trick is that the things many people in the middle care about are issues that require no abandonment of conservatism, because they are entirely different issues than the ones by which most conservatives define ourselves.
The center, for just one example, cares about nature. They aren't necessarily "environmentalists" in the sense of supporting big-government regulations, but they do care about conservation. In fact, many of the activists against gun control are sportsmen who want to make sure their fishing holes and hunting grounds still will teem with wildlife. And Evangelical voters, too, increasingly are expressing ecological concerns. There are plenty of conservative solutions for ecological problems (cap-and-trade, voluntary coastal wetlands-management arrangements, etc.) that actually work to ward off big-government meddling while reassuring independents that we aren't going to let their hunting bayou turn into another Love Canal.
The second and more important trick is to recognize that the American political center and the American right are already in concert on a host of other issues, the sorts of issues that motivated Ross Perot's backers and Jesse Ventura's backers: balanced budgets, an end to wasteful spending (especially pork), and ethics reforms. Indeed, it was in large part the voters energized by Perot in 1992 who carried Republicans to victory in 1994, mainly on the twin issues of spending and ethics.
The conservative blogosphere, of course, has been on fire on just these issues (and the related issue of transparency in government) for two solid years now. In other words, the right and the center are in utter agreement on them.
In these elections, though, at least two impressive surveys showed that voters now, by large margins, identify Republicans rather than Democrats as the party of big government. A group called OnMessage Inc., for example, found that voters in swing districts overwhelmingly believed that Democrats would be better at keeping spending down and reducing deficits. And "getting government spending under control" was the single most important domestic (non-security-related) issue identified in the survey. Republicans can attract independents precisely by re-establishing their conservative bona fides on spending.
On a host of other issues, too, the broad political center also agrees with conservatives. As I have argued numerous times on this site, (for instance, for just one example), when the issue is judges, conservatives win. To repeat the mantra: "We win because Americans instinctively believe that the meaning of laws shouldn't change with the whims of judges. We win because conservative (textualist, deferential) judges tend to reach results, by the very nature of their jurisprudential reasoning process, that the majority of Americans support: Against public confiscation of private property for other private interests. Against partial birth abortion. Against a crazed antagonism toward all references to faith in the public square. For the Pledge of Allegiance. Against judicially imposed taxation, and against judicially imposed legal recognition of homosexual unions. And certainly against the use of foreign law to trump traditional interpretations of the Constitution of, after all, the United States of America."
The third trick for conservatives trying to appeal to the center is that they must actually try to, yes, appeal to the center. We can do this, as Reagan did, by making the effort not to change our beliefs but to better explain our beliefs -- which requires, to begin with, that we act as if our beliefs are worth defending and expounding. It also requires that we show enough respect to those who remain unconvinced. We do this by taking the time to expound and explain those beliefs, in order to persuade, rather than just declaring those beliefs as if the very declaration ends the discussion.
Also as Reagan did, we must choose our language carefully. Some words and expressions are more persuasive than others are. The modern maestro at finding good language for conservatives to use is pollster Frank Luntz, yet for some reason Republicans stopped turning to him for advice. Luntz is no Reagan, for nobody can match Reagan's preternatural grace and charm. But he -- as does Peggy Noonan often, for that matter -- has a knack for finding the right words to match with the policies that are "right" in both senses of the word.
So there: That's how we can re-attract the millions of swing voters we have lost, by moving right and center at the same time. We do it by choosing our issues wisely and explaining them carefully. And in doing those things, we also take the first necessary steps toward not just attracting the voters we need, but toward inspiring them.