Romney and the weakness of Nixon's electoral coalition

by John MacBeath Watkins

How bad a candidate is Mitt Romney? So bad, even this can't help him:

Under Douglas Hibbs' very simple model of elections, voters want peace and prosperity, and if the incumbent doesn't deliver, he's generally out the door. Thus, he tells us:

According to the Bread and Peace model postwar American presidential elections should be interpreted as a sequence of  referendums on the incumbent party’s record during its four-­‐year mandate period. In fact postwar aggregate votes for president are well explained by just two objectively measured fundamental determinants: (1) Weighted-­‐average growth of per capita real disposable personal income over the term, and (2) Cumulative US military fatalities due to unprovoked, hostile deployments of American armed forces in foreign wars. No other outside variable systematically affects postwar aggregate votes for president.

And, according to this model, Mitt Romney should be a shoe-in, with President Obama polling 47.5% to Romney's 52.5%.

The only post WW II elections this metric didn't work in are, as James Pethokoukis as AIE notes, are Bob Dole's race against Bill Clinton in 1996 and Al Gore's failure to hold the White House for the Democrats in 2000.

So Romney should be cruising unless he's a complete stiff, like Dole and Gore.

But he's the best the Republican Party had this year. We had a good, close look at his opponents in the primaries, and while a few could get the base fired up, none of the others had enough appeal to win in a general election.

Take a closer look at the field. None of them other than Romney had any real appeal outside of the South. Rick Santorum couldn't even get re-elected to the senate, Romney himself can't carry Massachusetts, and probably could not get elected governor there again.

In a year when there is every reason to suppose the challenger could unseat the incumbent, in a year when the incumbent is faced with about a 2% loss in support because of his race, the eventual nominee is having to pretend to be a completely different candidate than he pretended to be to get the nomination, just to have the voters take him seriously as an alternative.

 And we can expect a replay of the electoral map we saw in the McCain-Obama match in 2008:

Oops. Wrong map. Or was it?

History can move quickly, but culture changes sloowwww. To win the 1968 election, Richard Nixon came up with the Southern strategy, expanded on by Pat Buchanan in a notorious memo which he gave to George Packer for his seminal but premature article on the downfall of conservatism:

Buchanan gave me a copy of a seven-page confidential memorandum—“A little raw for today,” he warned—that he had written for Nixon in 1971, under the heading “Dividing the Democrats.” Drawn up with an acute understanding of the fragilities and fault lines in “the Old Roosevelt Coalition,” it recommended that the White House “exacerbate the ideological division” between the Old and New Left by praising Democrats who supported any of Nixon’s policies; highlight “the elitism and quasi-anti-Americanism of the National Democratic Party”; nominate for the Supreme Court a Southern strict constructionist who would divide Democrats regionally; use abortion and parochial-school aid to deepen the split between Catholics and social liberals; elicit white working-class support with tax relief and denunciations of welfare. Finally, the memo recommended exploiting racial tensions among Democrats. “Bumper stickers calling for black Presidential and especially Vice-Presidential candidates should be spread out in the ghettoes of the country,” Buchanan wrote. “We should do what is within our power to have a black nominated for Number Two, at least at the Democratic National Convention.” Such gambits, he added, could “cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half.”
It's been the Republican playbook since then. Such tactics worked very well in a society where whites were a clear majority, and feared loss of their privileged position in our society. As the demographics change and the party is tied more firmly to the South, Nixon's genius for setting people against each other is beginning to backfire on his party. We are finally reaching the phase where 40 years and more of success are followed by Republicans having the smaller half.

Romney, shedding his conservative skin and re-emerging as Moderate Mitt, has faced up to the fact that he cannot represent the Republican base and still be elected by the American people. He has chosen to pretend to be a different person than he pretended to be for the Republican base, and the fundamentals of bread and peace say that he should be able to pull it off. It appears those who bought the idea that he was "severe conservative" Mitt are willing to shut up and let him try to sell this new image, and hope their hold on him is strong enough to push their agenda through his administration.

If he can't pull it off, perhaps in four years we'll have a Republican candidate who doesn't need to shed his skin. At some point, the party has to adapt to the new demographic realities, and when it does, I'm betting it happens fairly quickly. Nixon reshaped the party in his image, and around his prejudices and resentments. We can only hope whoever reshapes the party to face the new realities can fashion a more attractive party.