Two years ago, following the 2006 election, this blog published an essay entitled "Why Republicans Lost". Much of what was said there applies to the results of the 2008 election as well.
Obviously, this election was a disaster for Republicans. This report by Tim Carney for the Evans-Novak Political Report surveys the damage.
So what factors contributed to the Republican defeat?
The Economy. Obviously, a financial meltdown happening weeks before the election is terrible for the party in power. That particularly means the party that controls the White House. Of course, nobody chooses when these things happen. Republicans policies weren't directly responsible for the recession, but unfortunately they went along with some bad policies that contributed to it. These include pushing more minority lending and Federal Reserve inflation through lower interest rates.
Still, the impact of the recession on the Republicans need not have been as bad as it was. Their response was terrible. The democrats had a message and stuck to it: the financial crisis was caused by deregulation which allowed the free market to go wild with 'predatory lending', causing the collapse. Now, this story is totally false. But Republicans never effectively challenged it. Which regulations specifically would have stopped the collapse? Nor did they offer an alternative: the government pushed the banks to make the very loans that the democrats later decried. Republican incoherence on the most important issue of the election gave it do the democrats.
The Bailout. When the financial crisis threatened several Wall Street firms, the Bush administration responded by proposing a 700 billion-or-so bailout. This was terrible policy, rewarding failure and encouraging more failure and bankruptcy. It was also terrible politically. The bailout sparked a wave of public outrage intense enough to derail it in the House, though Wall Street and the White House redoubled their efforts and passed an even worse version of the bill. It also alienated fiscal conservatives, who had precious little reason to vote for a party that would blow a trillion dollars in corporate welfare for Wall Street. Republican talking points that democrats were socialists rang hollow in light of the bailout.
It didn't help that Republican leaders in Congress supported the measure. Although more democrats voted for the bill than Republicans, the pubic identified it with Republicans since it was proposed by the Bush administration. A Club for Growth survey found that when asked which party was "The party that supports taxpayer bailouts for big corporations", voters 43.4% identified Republicans, 15.9% said Democrats, and 25.8% said both.
Iraq. The Iraq War wasn't as prominent an issue as in 2006, but it was still a factor. While the war may not have cost Republicans more voters than it did in 2006, the voters who were lost in 2006 did not return. Voters did not endorse immediate withdrawal, but they did vote no confidence in the handling of the war and the intelligence failures that preceded it.
Corruption. Republicans did a somewhat better job than in 2006 at pressuring members threatened by scandal into retirement (Renzi, Doolittle). However, the seats where they failed cost them. Case in point is Ted Stevens' Alaska Senate seat, where a seat that should have been safely Republican was handed to the democrats for six years. Of course, democrats had plenty of scandals of their own, but the media didn't harp on them nearly as much.
Spending. Even aside from the bailout, Republican big spending has alienated fiscal conservatives without doing much to attract votes from the targets of all that spending. Fiscal prudence is a better electoral strategy than profligacy.
Trade. Rightly or wrongly, many voters have become convinced that Republican trade policies are responsible for outsourcing and job losses. The truth is certainly more complicated, and government regulation and taxation has a lot to do with job losses. But it should be clear by now that 'free trade' is a political loser. One way or another, Republicans will have to deal with this.
The 2006 election was a defeat for Republicans, not conservatism. The same is true for the 2008 results. Voters rejected Republicans based on anti-conservative positions on the bailout, spending, ideologically complicated issues like Iraq and trade, and factors only very indirectly related to political ideology like the economy and corruption.
Conservatism at least held its own in the ballot initiatives. Voters defined marriage in three states, overcoming a huge gay-rights campaign in liberal California, beating the 60% threshold in Florida, and reversing the previous rejection of a marriage initiative in Arizona. Nebraska banned racial preferences, Arkansas banned gay adoption, Missouri overwhelmingly made English its official language, and Arizona rejected a pro-illegal immigrant measure.
Surveys of voters showed that their political beliefs had not changed. One survey showed that more voters identified as conservative than liberal, and only one percent more called themselves liberal than in 2006.
While voter turnout was up a bit, it was hardly the stampede that some pundits were predicting. Basically, democrats turned out a little more, and Republicans turned out a little less. It's no wonder, as the party gave Republican voters little to turn out for.
You wouldn't think that it would be rocket science for political candidates to emphasize the issues that the public agrees with you on. But this often seems like a foreign concept to Republicans, who surrendered or ignored their best issues. Issues like official English, drivers licences for illegals, no amnesty, gun rights, partial birth abortion, protecting marriage, and racial preferences were hardly mentioned, particularly at the presidential level.
If Republicans are going to get back into power, they are going to have to get on the right side of the issues. That means getting back to conservative principles.