Debate Club

Social Issues Bring in the Popular Vote for Republicans

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It's not a coincidence that the GOP has won popular vote only in elections with social issues at play

The rise of the culture wars in national politics dates from the social unrest of the late 1960s. Since that time, Republicans have won 7 of the last 11 presidential elections. This came on the heels of the New Deal era of economic-centered elections (1932-64) in which social issues were absent and Republicans lost the presidency 7 of 9 times.

Let's drill down a bit further. In the post-Reagan era, social issues took on a high profile in two of the last six national elections: 1988 (furloughs, ACLU membership, Pledge of Allegiance) and 2004 (judicial imposition of same-sex marriage). These also happen to be the only two elections in which Republicans won a popular-vote majority. It's not a coincidence.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.]

It is often said that swing voters tend to be conservative on economic issues and liberal on social issues. This has some validity on the West Coast and in the Northeast. But it is in the swing states of Middle America where most presidential elections are decided, and in those states the swing voters are more likely to be socially conservative and economically liberal.

This is why in the close elections of 2000 and 2004, Republicans were able to fashion slim majorities in the Electoral College. In 2000, 29 of the 30 states carried by George W. Bush were socially conservative. In 2004, it was 31 out of 31. Those states had 286 electoral votes in 2004; today, following population shifts in the 2010 Census, they have 292 electoral votes—22 more than needed for election. Moreover, such states as Pennsylvania and Michigan, carried in neither election by the GOP, are also socially conservative.

The biggest reason for resistance to social issues is fear on the part of Republican elites. The party's consultants and candidates shy away from social issues because social conservatives come in for negative coverage in the press and sometimes experience complications in high-dollar fundraising. But if 2012 turns out to be a year when social issues elbow their way into the debate in spite of everything—and it's looking more and more like this could be such a year—history says Republican chances of taking back the White House should be marked up accordingly.

Jeffrey Bell

About Jeffrey Bell Author of 'The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism'

Republican Party

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