The Lesson Republicans Must Learn from Virginia and New Jersey

Finding the right issues to appeal to an increasingly conservative country.

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Last night's election results in Virginia and New Jersey sent a clear message: to win elections these days, you have to win the independent vote. According to Politico's tally of the exit polls, Virginia Republican Bob McDonnell captured 62 percent of the independent vote, while Democrat Creigh Deeds received only 37 percent. New Jersey's new governor, Republican Chris Christie, won 58 percent of the independent vote, while incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine received only 31 percent.

This is in line with a poll that Gallup released last week showing that Americans are more than twice as likely to choose "conservative" as "liberal" in identifying themselves. When you add moderates to the picture, conservatives and moderates outnumbered liberals by nearly 4 to 1.

The conservative figure has inched up as moderates have moved to the right, both in general ideology and on specific issues. Great for the Republican Party, right? I'm not so sure, if you look at the fine print of that poll.

Here's why: If you look at the specific issues on which Gallup polled, you'll see Americans leaning right on fiscal concerns. More folks are concerned about overregulation of business these days, for example, and record-high numbers think labor unions have too much power.

But you'll also see increases in the number of people who identify themselves as "pro-life" and who want to relax gun laws. The most interesting figure may be the five-year high in the number of people who have "a propensity to want the government to 'promote traditional values' as opposed to 'not favor any particular set of values.' "

Think about that. They want the government to promote traditional values. Most conservatives favor traditional values (except maybe the ones referred to in the "Republicans for Voldemort" bumper stickers, but we'll leave them out of this), but not every conservative thinks having the government promote "values" is a great idea.

That's because there's very little agreement about what those values should be. Which is more important: Liberty or responsibility? Individual freedom or community standards? Live-and-let-live tolerance or across-the-board litmus tests? Depends on whom you ask. Conservatives come in all colors, and they are urban and rural, young and old. You'll find a lot of disagreement on social issues. But conservatives agree that the size and scope of government are out of control.

Most conservatives believe that there are some things only the federal government can and should manage, such as national defense, federal law enforcement, scientific research, and the interstate highway system. On a good day, you could get most to agree that the feds should probably run the national parks. Everything else—schools, gun laws, insurance regulation, car inspections, drunk-driving limits, and the like—should fall to state and local governments.

And what doesn't fall to them should fall to us as parents, members of churches, volunteers, and neighbors. It's no coincidence that as the number of Americans who identify themselves as limited-government conservatives has grown, so too has the number of volunteers in America—62 million in 2008 alone, according to one recent estimate—because more and more people realize that government cannot and should not be the answer to everything. Ask the average 25-year-old who's doing a better job in the neighborhood: the federal Department of Education or organizations like Teach for America. I bet you'll get a conservative answer to that. But that 25-year-old is not a Republican. Only a small fraction of those young voters turned out to vote at all yesterday — only eight percent in New Jersey and ten percent in Virginia.

The share of Americans who claim membership in the Republican Party is the lowest in decades—28 percent. Young people and women especially are turned off by a Republican Party identified with Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter. They're tired of people who call the president a racist, crazies in the "birther" movement, and commentators who seem to do nothing but scream on cable TV about social issues. They feel disconnected from the GOP they used to know.