In a recent post, I suggested that Republicans might want to be careful about following a strategy in which attempts to influence policy (e.g., working with Obama to shape legislation) are abandoned as part of a political strategy that essentially bets the house on continued economic deterioration. Let me now follow this up with two other disturbing trends for the Republican party, which together present a valuable long-term opportunity for Democrats:
1) In a compilation of CBS/NY Times polls released today, the current gap in 18-29 year olds identifying with either the Democrats or Republicans has reached 14% points (http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2009/03/01/weekinreview/20090301_CONNELLY_GRFK.html) in favor of the Democrats; by contrast, this age group favored Republicans through most of Reagan’s second term and Bush 41’s first term. One thing political scientists have learned about partisan identification in the United States is that while it tends to bounce around a bit while people are in their 20s, identifications held by people in their 30s tend to stick. While we don’t know if the current 18-29 year old generation will necessarily hold the same preferences when they pass through their 30s, if they do it could spell big problems for the Republican party for decades.
2) My understanding of the reason why Democrats have so many “superdelegates” involved in the selection of their presidential nominee was to counter a concern that arose in the late 1970s and early 1980s that the primary process encouraged presidential candidates to run so far to the left during the primaries that they would be unable to win enough of the center to be competitive in the general election. Watching the current festivities unfold at CPAC (http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0209/19449.html), I wonder if the 24 hour news media / new media / blogosphere world hasn’t put us in a state of perpetual primaries. After all, it really seems like many of the speakers CPAC are behaving as if they are already fighting for the 2012 nomination. If this is the case, then I’d suspect the same problems will be in play for the Republicans over the next 3-4 years that the Democrats worried about previously: more and more attention paid to wooing primary voters (e.g., the conservative wing of the party). With this process apparently starting so early now, though, this means the main message coming from most of the potential “leaders” of the Republican party is going to be targeted at this narrow audience. If such a message is all that voters hear associate with the Republican party between now and 2012, then one is left to wonder how any eventual nominee could ever be able to credibly come back to the center enough for the general election. Put another way, imagine a thought experiment where you are the campaign manager for the Republican candidate in 2012. Would you prefer that for the previous 4 years the Republican Party had built up an image that appealed to the median voter in the country, or the median primary voter in the Republican party? Of course you’d want the former option, but it looks like we’re headed for the latter. It should be noted that unlike the trends in party identification this is not a Republican problem by definition, since it is being driven by technological innovation. Nevertheless, it is likely to be a particular problem for opposition parties in the first term of a presidency, as sitting incumbents do not (generally) have to worry about a primary process. So for now, it is a Republican problem.
And it is an especially troublesome Republican problem in view of my first point about party identification. Combining these two trends suggests a not unrealistic prediction is that as the Republican party increasingly trumpets a message designed to appeal to a far-right portion of the electorate over the next 3-4 years, 18-29 year olds that already prefer the Democratic party by a wide margin will find no reason to abandon that position as they move into a more politically stable period of their lives. This strikes me as a very dangerous scenario for the Republican Party, and one which I would suggest the Democratic party would benefit from trying to bring to fruition.