There were a lot of reasons why Sen. John McCain lost to Barack Obama in 2008. He was outspent, his message lacked inspiration, his economic plan was weak, and, for many, Sarah Palin was a pill. Now a new look at the campaign suggests something scarier for the Republican Party. Its shrinking and dying base is no longer big enough to deliver a victory and McCain did nothing to woo new voters. In contrast, Obama, seeing his base also insufficient to push him across the line, made the unconventional move to take the party faithful for granted when mapping campaign visits. Instead he focused on recruiting new voting groups.
Now, with the GOP losing ground among older, whiter voters, the next Republican nominee is being urged to follow the Obama model and reach beyond the traditional conservative base. “In 2012, Republicans would be well advised—as a party that does not control the White House and only one house of Congress—to pursue the peripheral strategy employed by Obama and Biden in 2008,” political scholars Lanhee Chen and Andrew Reeves write in the May edition of American Politics Research. “That is, Republicans should tailor their mobilization efforts to growing geographic constituencies that may not have necessarily demonstrated high levels of support for GOP candidates in recent elections.” Like Latinos in Nevada, Florida, and New Mexico. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on 2012 GOP candidates.]
Their study is revealing in proving that the atypical Obama strategy worked. Chen, a visiting scholar at the University of California–Berkeley, and Reeves, an assistant professor at Boston University, say candidates from both parties typically do two things in every election. They use the campaign map of the previous nominee to decide where to visit, then they follow each other to big cities in battleground states like Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania. The authors found that McCain stuck to the old game plan.
Obama and Joe Biden, however, tore up John Kerry’s 2004 road map and picked areas in battleground states outside the typical stops.
“In deciding where to go, Republicans privileged past partisan support and avoided geographic constituencies that had either experienced growth or seen electoral variability. For the Democrats, visits were targeted to counties that had seen population change, and therefore, places with the potential for new supporters,” write the authors.
For 2012, Reeves tells Whispers, it’s change or die for the Republicans: “Failure is a great motivator of change—or at least should be.”