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GOP Proves You Can’t Win Without Running a Campaign on Issues

For the second national election in a row, Republicans failed to build the kind of winning coalition that drove Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory and the successful 1994 Gingrich revolution. The reason isn’t particularly complicated.

[IMGCAP(1)]GOP campaign leaders and operatives once again adopted a base strategy despite the fact that neither party can win without attracting key swing voters in the middle. With party affiliation slightly shifting away from Republicans in this election, an economic meltdown and a hugely unpopular president, it was astonishing to see so many Republican political leaders and consultants cling to what had already been shown to be a self-defeating strategy.

How did Republican base strategy work with these crucial voters? First, exit polls at the House level showed Republicans lost independents by 8 points, 43 percent to 51 percent. This was an improvement over 2006, when Republicans lost them by 18 points, 39 percent to 57 percent, but was still worse than 2004, when they lost them by 3 points, 46 percent to 49 percent.

Second, Republicans lost middle-income voters ($50,000-$75,000 per year) by 5 points, 46 percent to 51 percent, Catholics by 13 points (42-55) and married women with children, who have played key roles in recent elections, by 5 points (46-51). Four years ago, married women with children voted Republican by a margin of 9 points (54-45).

Third, the huge slide of younger voters toward the Democratic Party ought to set off alarm bells for any Republican concerned about the future viability of the party.

Despite all the hype, we saw only a slight increase in turnout among voters ages 18-29, going from 16 percent of the electorate in 2004 to 18 percent in 2008. More important, however, was the Democrats’ huge 29-point margin with this group (63-34). In 2004, Republicans lost this group by only 11 points (44-55).

Finally, there were several shifts in party identification that should also concern GOP leaders. In 2004, Republicans and Democrats were even in party ID, 38-38. Exit polls Tuesday showed Democrats with a 7-point advantage, 40-33.

Democrats’ 40 percent ID fell at the high end of their typical range, showing no extraordinary shift. For Republicans, however, their drop to 33 percent was an atypical result, the lowest ID since 1986.

A preliminary look at what happened in terms of party identification seems to indicate a shift from Republicans to independents. The number of self-identified independents rose from 25 percent in 2004 to 28 percent in 2008, the highest level since 1990; bad news for Republicans.

But there is some good news for Republicans. The data show clearly that this is still a center-right country. In the 2008 election, 34 percent of voters identified themselves as conservative. This reflects no change from 2004 and an increase of 2 points from 2006. You have to go back to the 1994 election to find a higher percentage of conservatives (37 percent).

Liberals also increased slightly, up to 22 percent, from 21 percent in 2004, but conservatives still hold a 12-point advantage. Moderates remain the largest segment of the electorate at 44 percent, just a point lower than 2004.

When it came to the No. 1 issue, the economy, cited by 63 percent of voters in the exit polls, Democrats won those voters overwhelmingly, 55-43. Second, at 10 percent, was the war in Iraq, which Democrats also won, 59-39.

So what should Republicans take away from this election? That issues do matter and the majority of voters philosophically side with Republican center-right solutions. But when Republicans take the attitude that “this election is not about issues” as Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) campaign openly asserted, they throw that advantage away.

Key voter groups moved to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Democrats because Republicans failed to articulate a clear economic message based on ideas. Contrary to conventional GOP campaign wisdom, a negative attack strategy is simply no substitute for an idea-based strategy. Lost in millions of dollars of negative ads, voters never heard what Republicans were for.

Fortunately, there is a positive model for Republicans to follow. Since the 2006 elections, there has been only one clearly identified GOP legislative success story, the issue of energy. House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and other House Republicans, with the help of former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), put forward a comprehensive “all of the above” energy proposal and forced Democrats to abandon the ban on off-shore drilling.

Republicans’ energy initiative changed public thinking. In exit polls, when asked “Do you favor or oppose drilling for oil offshore in U.S. waters where it is currently not allowed?” 69 percent of voters favored drilling; only 27 percent opposed.

That success translated into votes. Among voters who said energy was their top issue, Republicans won them 49-47. Republicans need to extend the energy issue model to other issues, the most obvious being the economy.

Republican campaigns have to get back to talking about issues that matter to people and stop thinking they can win with tactical tools and negative attacks. GOP campaigns are going to have to learn how to present ideas and solutions, something they have been remarkably inept at doing in recent years.

Simply put, most Republican campaigns today do not know how to have a conversation with the electorate, and the results are painfully obvious. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be hearing all kinds of excuses for the Republican losses. They’ve already begun as operatives blame everyone and everything but their own ineptitude. It’s time the Republican Party put ideas first.

David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party in Great Britain, provided a model Republicans ought to embrace: The purpose of a political party is not to win elections, but to prove it is ready to govern.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.

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