(Michael J. Petrilli) – The Republican Party is resurgent—or so goes the conventional wisdom. With its gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey, an energized “tea party” base, and an administration overreaching on health care, climate change and spending, 2010 could shape up to be 1994 all over again.
Maybe. The political landscape sure looks greener than it did a year ago, when talk of a permanent Democratic majority was omnipresent. But before John Boehner starts measuring the drapes in the Speaker’s office, or the party exults about its possibilities in 2012, it’s worth noting that some of the key trends driving President Barack Obama’s strong victory in 2008 haven’t disappeared. Republicans need to address them head-on if they want to lead a majority party again.
There are the depressing numbers on young voters (two-thirds of whom voted for Mr. Obama), African-Americans and Latinos (95% and 67% went blue respectively). But these groups have voted Democratic for decades, and their strong turnout in 2008’s historic election wasn’t replicated this fall, nor is it likely to be replicated again.
The voting patterns of the college-educated is another story. This is a group that, slowly but surely, is growing larger every year. About 30% of Americans 25 and older have at least a bachelor’s degree; in 1988 that number was only 20% and in 1968 it was 10%.
As less-educated seniors pass away and better-educated 20- and 30-somethings take their place in the electorate, this bloc will exert growing influence. And here’s the distressing news for the GOP: According to exit-poll data, a majority of college-educated voters (53%) pulled the lever for Mr. Obama in 2008—the first time a Democratic candidate has won this key segment since the 1970s.
Some in the GOP see this trend as an opportunity rather than a problem. Let the Democrats have the Starbucks set, goes the thinking, and we’ll grab working-class families. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, for instance, wants to embrace “Sam’s Club” Republicans. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee pitched himself in 2008 as the guy who “looks like your co-worker, not your boss.” Even Mitt Romney blasted “Eastern elites.” And of course there’s Sarah Palin, whose entire brand is anti-intellectual.
To be sure, playing to personal identity is hardly novel, nor is it crazy. Bill Bishop and other political analysts have noted that people’s politics are as much about their lifestyle choices as their policy positions. Republicans live in exurbs and small towns, drive pick-up trucks or SUVs, go to church every Sunday, and listen to country music. Well-heeled Democrats live in cities and close-in suburbs, drive hybrids or Volvos, hang out at bookshops, and frequent farmers’ markets. These are stereotypes, of course, but they also contain some truth.
Widening this cultural divide has long been part of the GOP playbook, going back to Nixon’s attacks on “East Coast intellectuals” and forward to candidate Obama’s arugula-eating tendencies. But with the white working class shrinking and the educated “creative class” growing, playing the populism card looks like a strategy of subtraction rather than addition. A more enlightened approach would be to go after college-educated voters, to make the GOP safe for smarties again.
What’s needed is a full-fledged effort to cultivate “Whole Foods Republicans”—independent-minded voters who embrace a progressive lifestyle but not progressive politics. These highly-educated individuals appreciate diversity and would never tell racist or homophobic jokes; they like living in walkable urban environments; they believe in environmental stewardship, community service and a spirit of inclusion. And yes, many shop at Whole Foods, which has become a symbol of progressive affluence but is also a good example of the free enterprise system at work. (Not to mention that its founder is a well-known libertarian who took to these pages to excoriate ObamaCare as inimical to market principles.)
What makes these voters potential Republicans is that, lifestyle choices aside, they view big government with great suspicion. There’s no law that someone who enjoys organic food, rides his bike to work, or wants a diverse school for his kids must also believe that the federal government should take over the health-care system or waste money on thousands of social programs with no evidence of effectiveness. Nor do highly educated people have to agree that a strong national defense is harmful to the cause of peace and international cooperation.
So how to woo these voters to the Republican column? The first step is to stop denigrating intelligence and education. President George W. Bush’s bantering about being a “C” student may have enamored “the man in the street,” but it surely discouraged more than a few “A” students from feeling like part of the team.
The same is true for Mrs. Palin’s inability to name a single newspaper she reads. If the GOP doesn’t want to be branded the “Party of Stupid,” it could stand to nominate more people who can speak eloquently on complicated policy matters.
Even more important is the party’s message on divisive social issues. When some Republicans use homophobic language, express thinly disguised contempt toward immigrants, or ridicule heartfelt concerns for the environment, they affront the values of the educated class. And they lose votes they otherwise ought to win.
The races in Virginia and New Jersey show what can happen when the GOP sticks to its core economic message instead of playing wedge politics. Both Republican candidates won majorities of college-educated voters. Their approach attracted Sam’s Club Republicans and Whole Foods Republicans alike.
It’s good news that America is becoming better educated, more inclusive, and more concerned about the environment. The Republican Party can either catch this wave, or watch its historic opportunity for “resurgence” wash away with the tides.
(Mr. Petrilli is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a frequenter of the Whole Foods Market in Silver Spring, Md.)