There were a couple of pieces that came out this weekend -- one from former McCain consultant Mike Murphy in Time and the other from Dan Balz at the Washington Post -- that paint a rather dire picture for the Republican Party's future electoral prospects. The premise is simple: Demographics are changing and unless the GOP does too, the Party of Lincoln will fall into minority status long term.
Is that the case, though? It wasn't that long ago that the Democratic Party was equally "leaderless" and pundits were offering their suggestions for how the party could turn it around. One such cautionary tale was from David Brooks just after the 2004 presidential election. In an op-ed that has stuck with me since, Brooks pointed out the importance of the exurbs in electoral politics. Further he noted that, as is often the case in the elections game, those first to recognize the importance of a new demographic are likely the first to reap the benefits of sending campaign resources their way. The Bush campaign understood the power of this segment of the electorate and used its advantage in those exurban areas (among others) to outpace John Kerry overall.
The interesting thing is that of the three states Brooks mentions, all three -- Florida, Nevada and Virginia -- voted for Bush in 2004 and Obama in 2008. And of the counties/cities Brooks cites, two of the three -- Loudoun County in (northern) Virginia and Henderson outside of Las Vegas -- flipped similarly. Only Polk County along the I-4 corridor in Florida stayed red, though it was six points less red than it had been in 2004.
In other words, the Democrats, or the Obama campaign at least, learned something from that 2004 election by turning a positive for the GOP into an advantage for their party. [The counterargument there is that the Democrats may have learned something, but it was the economy that was their advantage.] Is a similar turnaround even on the table for the GOP, though? At this point in the presidential election cycle, it is difficult to perceive. Murphy points out the Obama administration's spending as a potential opening for Republicans, but even that is underscored by the demographic advantages both he and Balz chalk up for the Democrats.
The real thing to look at is who the Republicans ultimately turn to as a spokesperson for their party and that brings us full circle back to the leadership question. Who is delivering the message and how the party reacts to that person counts. Does the party find, then, a Ronald Reagan, circa 1980 or a Bob Dole, circa 1996? Yes, the conditions were different for both of those candidates, but I don't think there is any debate as to the identity of the superior spokesman among the two.
But who is that person for the GOP in 2009? 2010? 2012? If we glance at the FHQ Candidate Emergence Tracker (in the left sidebar also), Sarah Palin outdoes all others included, but is she the candidate to counter Obama and mute the demographic advantages the Democrats hold? Currently, I'd be willing to wager that the concensus answer would be no and if that's the case, who is that candidate that could turn things around for the GOP? That's why this leadership question is important: because who emerges is the quickest and most effective way to counter the Obama effect and shift the narrative long term.
The problem? We just don't know who that is.
State of the Race: Virginia (6/11/09)
State of the Race: New Jersey (6/11/09)
Virginia is for Voters: Results Edition