Policy Papers

The Republican Party in defeat

Robert Mason |

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Executive Summary

  • After the defeat of Mitt Romney, Republicans are debating their party's future. Defeat is a problem that historically Republicans faced frequently, especially between the 1920s and the 1980s, a long era of Democratic Party electoral dominance.
  • Post-Great Depression debates about defeat featured deep disagreements between moderate and conservative Republicans, especially on questions of 'big government'.
  • Missteps by the incumbent Democrats, rather than Republican successes, largely explain the electoral progress that the party made. A series of projects to revitalise the party foundered.
  • From the 1960s onwards, social issues helped Republicans to make gains, but this strategy had weaknesses as well as strengths.
  • Anti-government conservatism - the long-time centre of the party's agenda - created an obstacle to the successful mobilisation of African Americans and, later, of women in its support. Especially from the 1960s onwards, these ideas built support, by contrast, within the conservative South, once a Democratic stronghold.
  • In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan led the party to new heights of success. Reagan's ability to sell conservatism and to achieve unity among different conservatives has proved hard to match.
  • Successful engagement with the problem of defeat is far from straightforward. The demographic challenge that the party now faces has deep roots and is therefore resistant to easy transformation.


Mitt Romney's defeat in the 2012 presidential election has ignited intense debate among Republicans about their party's future. The debate is so active because the party's present condition seems so bleak. The economic setting of this year's presidential campaign seemed to offer a promising moment for a challenge to the incumbent. Recovery from the financial crisis, if strong by current Western European standards, is slow and painful. Unemployment - an economic indicator of special electoral sensitivity - remains high. Time and again in 2012 Romney attacked Barack Obama for economic stagnation and persistent joblessness. Yet an unemployment rate close to 8 per cent, slightly higher than the total when Obama entered the White House, did not create an argument strong enough for GOP victory. That is sobering for Republicans. Even more sobering are the data of demographic change that document a nation of increasing diversity. Pro-Republican groups are in decline; pro-Democratic groups are growing. 'The demographics race we're losing badly,' said Senator Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina in August, making an observation that would soon be widely quoted: 'We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.' How to stay in business is the question at the heart of the Republican debate.

The demographic setting is new. In 2012, 28 per cent of voters were the member of a racial minority, nearly double the proportion at the end of the Reagan years, in 1988 (15 per cent). The American population was 85 per cent white in 1960 but 63 per cent in 2011; the projected proportion for 2050 is 47 per cent. But the larger challenge is far from new. Defeat characterises the history of the Republican Party across much of the twentieth century. This policy paper examines why the party remained so weak in electoral terms for so long, and historically contextualises the current intra-party debate about how to make a comeback at the polls.

New Deal liberalism and the Republican Party's minority status

The Great Depression of the 1930s marked electoral disaster for the party, in office when the economic crisis struck; until its arrival, the Republicans had seemed to be safely established as the nation's long-term majority party. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal then forged a powerful coalition of voters in support of the Democratic Party. For the Republicans, the result was relegation to minority status in the American two-party system, a position of electoral disadvantage that would persist for decades. Fewer Americans saw themselves as natural supporters of the Republican Party, as opposed to the Democratic Party. The scale of this minority problem was especially evident on Capitol Hill. Between the start of the 1930s and the 1980s, the party controlled both the House of Representatives and the Senate for only four years (1947-1949 and 1953-1955); the Senate was also in Republican hands between 1981 and 1987.

Electoral defeat, then, largely defines Republican Party's history between the Great Depression and the Reagan years. Throughout this period there was an intra-party debate about how to make a comeback. That debate was usually thoughtful and creative, but also divisive. While the detail of the debate shifted over time, the key divide did not. Moderate Republicans disagreed with conservative Republicans, especially on the size of the federal government. This was a split over which the New Deal first towered, and then cast a long-lasting shadow. Although an anti-government ethos acted as a unifying focus for the party, different Republicans applied that principle in distinctive ways. Conservative Republicans responded to the Democrats' initiatives of government activism by calling for rollback. Their moderate counterparts also preferred smaller government, but they were readier to accept the need for programmatic innovations in order to tackle socioeconomic ills. They embraced the key achievements of the New Deal and its goals, whereas conservatives viewed the New Deal with alarm. Both groups advocated reliance on state and local governments, instead of Washington, wherever possible. Both groups were fiscally conservative and worried about the implications of 'big government'; however, they differed in degree.

Electoral strategy interacted with policy prescriptions on both sides of the divide. Moderates insisted that accommodation with New Deal liberalism was essential for victory at the polls. 'Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs,' Dwight Eisenhower remarked to his brother Edgar in 1954, 'you would not hear of that party again in our political history.' Rather derisively, conservatives in the party branded their moderate opponents as 'me-too' Republicans. They argued that moderates merely mimicked the Democrats' agenda, in paler form, and that more voters were sure to prefer the original version. They called for 'a choice, not an echo' - a clear, conservative alternative - in pursuit of election victory. Activist Phyllis Schlafly used that phrase as the title of her successful 1964 book that outlined this strategic perspective. According to this argument, a strong defence of conservative principle not only constructed a distinctive, attractive case against the Democrats. Its advocates also argued that outright opposition to New Deal liberalism was likelier to fire the enthusiasm of Republican activists, and their energies would consequently assist the party in the organisational task of maximising the turnout of Republican supporters at the polls.

Neither variety of Republican thinking provided a compelling solution to the problem of minority status, however. During this period a majority of American voters supported the brand of liberalism that the Democrats fashioned initially in response to the challenge of the Great Depression. This liberalism was defined by government activism: a proactive responsibility for government to maintain prosperity and to tackle socioeconomic problems via programmatic initiatives. There was an egalitarian strand too, over time addressing the obstacles faced by marginalised groups, most significantly African Americans. Pragmatism and caution characterised the Democratic pursuit of this agenda, constructed to appeal to an electoral majority. For decades, neither Republican moderates nor Republican conservatives succeeded in constructing an agenda that proved more attractive to the electorate as a whole.

Internal party dynamics also proved an obstacle. The assertion of unity has particular importance for a party that is trying to make a comeback at the polls. But it is a goal in which Republicans rarely showed much interest during this period, instead investing their efforts in the debate about minority status in ways that exposed and promoted differences among them. The stakes of that debate were high, not only in determining the nature of the party's policy agenda and its electoral strategy, but also in personal and factional terms. For individual Republicans, the prizes of leadership and influence were at stake. Only in the aftermath of the disastrous 1964 election did Republicans wholeheartedly stress the need for unity. The presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater, who lost to Lyndon Johnson by a landslide, had scarred the party. The battle for the nomination in 1964 was especially bitter; many in the party were reluctant to campaign for Goldwater when nominated, and some refused to do so. On election day, there were defections among Republican voters to Johnson. This was a moment when unity moved from a desirability to an imperative. Ray Bliss, as chair of the Republican National Committee (1965-1969), provided technocratic leadership that stressed organizational improvements over ideological discussion. This had the effect of stabilising the party, though not challenging the Right's longer-term ascendancy within it. In the 1968 contest for the presidential nomination, Richard Nixon was a beneficiary of the unity mood, as a Republican who managed to speak to all sides. This moment of unity was an exception, however. More often, the existence of the intractable 'minority puzzle' promoted intra-party disunity instead.

Republican progress at the polls

Between the 1930s and the 1980s - the long period of minority status - Republicans usually depended on the mistakes and misfortunes of the Democrats for electoral progress. Their first post-Depression breakthrough arrived in 1946. The transition from war to peace had proved economically painful - a time of inflation and strikes. That encouraged electoral disaffection with the Democrats. Six years later, war was a factor again in sapping popular confidence in the incumbents - this time the disappointing progress of the Korean War. In 1968, the Vietnam War had a yet more significant impact in shattering support for the Democrats. Characterised also by the trauma of race-related conflict, the year provided endless ammunition for an anti-incumbent attack, yet Richard Nixon's victory was a narrow one. It was in 1980 that Republicans achieved the greatest confidence that the political tide had turned in their favour, and that the long period of Democratic dominance was ending. But anti-incumbent discontent was more significant than pro-Republican enthusiasm in explaining the result. Foreign policy travails - this time in Iran and Afghanistan - fuelled disillusionment with the Carter administration, and so did the economic malaise of 'stagflation'. Again, Republicans were the beneficiaries of Democratic problems.

But many Republicans believed that the electoral breakthroughs of 1946, 1952, 1968, and 1980 were the product of their own strengths, rather than a reflection of the Democrats' misfortunes. This misinterpretation of political trends - an excessive confidence in the Republican condition - made it more difficult for them to use the breakthrough to build the party. Many Republicans saw those victories as proof of electoral enthusiasm for their anti-government agenda and a popular endorsement of conservatism. Rather than cautiously wooing disaffected supporters of the Democratic Party, they tended to promote their conservatism more confidently, in ways likelier to alienate these potential converts. After the 1946 midterms, for example, there was an intensification of conservative rhetoric that assisted Harry Truman in branding Republicans as out of touch - 'cold and cunning men', who advocated 'a return of the Wall Street economic dictatorship', for example. This was a strategy that helped Truman to achieve his surprise victory in the 1948 presidential contest, which marked the reassertion of the Democrats' New Deal coalition.

The presidential nature of the American political system personalises the debate about the party's future. The selection of a presidential candidate is closely connected with the choice of a vision for the party - the party's policy agenda, its electoral strategy. A presidential candidate and - even more so - a president have a uniquely strong position to lead that debate.

Both Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961) and Richard Nixon (1969-1974) tackled the problem of the party's minority status. Their efforts exposed the intractability of that problem; while both enjoyed personal victory at the polls, neither improved the party's larger fortunes much. Their respective projects for party revitalisation were similar. Both wanted to fashion a Republican version of government activism that answered a public demand for engagement with socioeconomic problems, but that tackled the perceived deficiencies of Democratic governance. The Republicans' connections with and affinity to business encouraged them to see their party as more efficient and capable, and less bureaucratic and wasteful, than their Democratic rivals. But the accomplishments of Eisenhower's 'modern Republicanism' were few. Nixon's agenda for domestic reform, which in 1971 he labelled a 'new American revolution', fared little better. Crucially, neither had much success in mobilising the party as a whole, in Congress or elsewhere, in support of the vision. As a result, the legislative achievements fell far short of the presidential goals. Both Eisenhower and Nixon had hoped to transform the Republican Party's identity - to moderate its popular reputation for conservatism - but neither was successful. As leaders, even as strong and imaginative leaders, they were not able to take the party in a direction that it doubted.

Indeed, Eisenhower's and Nixon's projects to revitalise the party both had unintended consequences in fostering Republican conservatism rather than moderation. During the 1950s, William F. Buckley, Jr., launched National Review as a forum for conservative thinkers, and Barry Goldwater emerged as a charismatic salesperson of conservative ideas within the Republican Party; both reflected frustration with Eisenhower, and both revitalised conservatism. During the 1970s, conservatives grumbled about Nixon's agenda of domestic reform and his pursuit of détente in superpower relations; these disappointments helped to inform the conservatism of the 'New Right' that subsequently emerged and reshaped the Republican Party. Paradoxically, Republican government proved to generate conservative discontent yet more powerfully than Republican opposition. Eisenhower's and Nixon's failures to pursue wholeheartedly conservative principles sowed discontent. Further inflaming this discontent were the shortcomings of their projects to revitalise the party. For conservatives, the failure of moderate efforts to mobilise a Republican majority stripped their party rivals of a case for influence; it undermined the force of their answer to the minority problem.

Group appeals and social conservatism

Nixon's project to build a 'new American majority' did not rely on the 'new American revolution' of domestic reform alone. He identified potentially disaffected segments of the Democrats' coalition, and he tried to fashion a special appeal to them, in order to pry them away from these voters' existing loyalties. For Catholics, for example, he promised federal aid to private parochial schools, and he made clear his opposition to abortion. (The fight between pro-life and pro-choice forces had not yet infected American politics as a whole.) Interest in Latino votes was one factor that encouraged the administration to support bilingual education for Spanish-speaking children, a policy that many later Republicans would oppose as sapping national integration. Nixon also used appointments to display his sensitivity to various groups, as a way to seek their support: not only Catholics and Latinos, but also Italian Americans and union leaders, among others. The electoral value of such constituency targeting is open to question, however. Although Nixon scored gains among these groups in the 1972 presidential election, there was little evidence that special appeals primarily accounted for the gains.

The anger that Lindsey Graham diagnoses in today's Republican Party - the party of 'angry white guys' - owes much to Nixon's new majority strategy. Nixon did not believe in the electoral power of fiscal conservatism and of anti-government opposition to the Democrats' programmatic liberalism. Although this insight encouraged him to advocate a moderate agenda of domestic reform, it also encouraged him to play up cultural conservatism, designed to appeal to voters otherwise unsympathetic to the Republican Party. A contemporary book about electoral change, The Real Majority (1970), by Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg, defined the American electoral majority as liberal on economic issues but conservative on social issues. Key examples of these social issues were the contemporary buzzword concerns of 'law and order' (often seen as a coded appeal to racial conservatism) and 'permissiveness'; yet more controversially, they encompassed opposition to an expansion of civil rights, especially policies of bussing of school children to achieve integrated classrooms.

Nixon agreed with Scammon and Wattenberg. He projected the Republican Party as the defender of traditional values against the Democrats' social liberalism; he opposed the cultural change that had characterised the 1960s. Nixon conceived this appeal as a positive endorsement of 'square America', rooted in patriotism, religion, and traditional morality. Inescapably framed as a challenge to contemporary transformations in culture, society, and politics, however, the appeal sounded hostile and angry. The leading exponent of the theme was Spiro Agnew, the vice president, who raged against permissiveness and anti-war protest, and who demonised Democrats as 'radical liberals' in sympathy with corrosive attacks on the American mainstream.

The mobilisation of social conservatism had electoral benefits for the Republican Party. Not only did the strategy win voters who would likely otherwise be in the Democratic camp, it also promoted discord among Democratic politicians, divided between social traditionalists and social liberals. More than that, it tapped activist energy for the party during the 1970s and beyond, within the forces of the New Right. A grassroots resurgence of conservatism encompassed anti-feminists, roused to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, and religious conservatives, arrayed against secularism on abortion and other issues. In the 1980s and the 1990s, cultural traditionalism seemed powerful in growing the Republican Party - in defeating the 1988 presidential candidacy of Michael Dukakis, for example. But seen in the context of the 2012 elections, the long-term trend in American society seems to embrace cultural cosmopolitanism and social liberalisation. As a result, the Republican Party is now facing a new version of the 'minority puzzle'.

The problem of diversity

The demographic challenge that the party faces today is one that has gradually and powerfully developed over time. As the 'party of Lincoln', the Republican Party had once enjoyed the overwhelming support of African Americans; that support began to disappear during the New Deal, and the disaffiliation of African Americans became complete in 1964. Against the backdrop of the black freedom struggle, Barry Goldwater voted against the landmark Civil Rights Act of that year, citing a preference for action on the state level rather than the federal level. Although most congressional Republicans voted aye, Goldwater's no clarified the nature of the choice for African Americans between Republican conservatism and Democratic liberalism, with lasting consequences. Subsequent Republicans worried about the need to win back at least some African American support; by the 1980s, their modest target was one in five, but even that small proportion was beyond them.

The gender gap - of greater support for the party among men than women - is a more recent phenomenon, taking place within the crucible of change in gender roles from the 1970s onwards. Indeed, in the 1950s the party's voter base was more female than male, though this earlier version of the gender gap received little contemporary reflection. The reversal of this trend by 1980 did not actually involve a decline in support for the party among women; instead, the party's resurgence of that year was rooted in the votes of men, readier to move from liberalism to conservatism. Again, this was an electoral problem that Republicans did not ignore, but their engagement did not solve it. The gender gap has remained persistent and significant. Social scientists differ in analysing it, but issues of social welfare seem crucial; Republican policies in this area have had greater appeal to men than women.

The party's anti-government commitments fatefully complicated efforts to boost Republican enthusiasm among African Americans and, later, among women. So did the Democrats' success in forging an agenda that addressed their concerns much more persuasively. The quests for racial equality and for gender equality - of socioeconomic opportunity as well as legal guarantees - essentially depended on action by the federal government. Although Republicans have supported and developed policies with an egalitarian edge (such as the Nixon administration's development of affirmative action), their scepticism about government action ensured that they were less reliable allies to causes of equality than Democrats were.

From the 1920s until the 1980s and beyond, Republicans showed significantly more interest in winning support among white southerners than among African Americans or women. Just as the party's roots in the Civil War and Reconstruction attracted African Americans, its history repelled conservative whites in the South, for whom the Democratic Party was the party of segregation and white supremacy. During the minority period many Republicans saw their anti-government ideas as providing common ground with southern conservatives - and therefore as a potential solution to the minority puzzle - though others denounced the implications of any such electoral alliance for their party's tradition of liberalism on race. Gradually, the Democrats supplanted the Republicans in that regard, and gradually Republicans made electoral progress in the South. The extent to which Republican politicians relied on racism to make southern gains remains the object of scholarly disagreement, as well as popular controversy. It is clear, however, that Republican success in this region did much to 'southernise' the party - in recent decades many leading Republicans have been southerners - and to emphasise its conservatism.

Ronald Reagan and the incomplete ascent from minority status

Like Eisenhower and Nixon before him, President Ronald Reagan imaginatively and conscientiously tackled the party's challenge of minority status. The political context was full of promise. Not only was the Democratic Party associated with the stagflation and foreign policy setbacks of the Carter years, Democrats also seemed to be running out of ideas at a time when conservatism was gaining a new intellectual energy. Reagan was an unusually skilful politician both in selling conservative ideas to the electorate and in dodging factional conflict between economic conservatives and social conservatives. His conservatism seemed optimistic rather than angry. Yet even Reagan was unable to solve fully the Republicans' minority problem. According to his pollster Richard Wirthlin, under Reagan the party ascended not to majority status but to 'parity status' with the Democrats. The fortunes of the party since Reagan reveal the incomplete nature of the party's revitalisation of the 1980s; since 1988, Republicans have won the popular vote in the presidential contest only once (in 2004). The 'Republican revolution' of 1994 marked the start of a stronger period for the party on Capitol Hill, but the past decade has been one of fluctuating fortunes for Republicans there.


The Republican Party's success under Reagan in ascending to parity status with the Democratic Party, but failure to achieve an enduring majority, helped to feed an instability that has characterised American party politics over the last few decades. During the first years of the twenty-first century there was much talk of a 'fifty-fifty nation' of partisan balance between the so-called Red America of Republican supporters and the Blue America of their Democratic counterparts; such partisan balance led to intense inter-party competition. But the 2012 election results encouraged the conclusion that demographic transformation is likely to assist the long-term strength of the Democratic Party. Blue America is growing - at the expense of Red America.

The years of the Republican minority, across much of the twentieth century, were a period of relative stability in inter-party competition; there are no easy parallels between then and now. But history reminds us that the current problems of the Republican Party have deep roots; they are the accumulation of many political decisions and many political developments over time. Today's debate about the party's future seems to assume sometimes that Republicans have a straightforward choice between strategic options, and corresponding policy alternatives. For example, the party's embrace of a softened policy on immigration is considered sure to achieve more Latino support; a willingness to advocate higher taxes for the wealthy is seen as likely to win back lost votes among middle-income voters. To be sure, such initiatives would probably help in revising the party's reputation towards an image of greater inclusivity and one less strictly wedded to anti-government principles. These seem promising steps to take as the nation becomes more diverse and at a time when many believe that America's socioeconomic problems demand assertive government action.

The history of the minority problem, however, suggests that Republicans face a series of constraints - as yet generally unacknowledged - in seeking to make a strong comeback. These constraints are significant: the preferences of the party's activist and contributor base, as well as those of primary voters, and the record and strategy forged by the incumbent Democrats. Even if the influence of the Tea Party movement continues to ebb, a significant element within the activist heart of the party will remain conservative, sceptical of moderate strategies and moderate policies. It is, moreover, not straightforward for Republicans to construct an agenda that will outflank the existing appeal of the Democrats; the Democrats will meanwhile work hard to defend and extend their 2012 voter coalition. Nevertheless, if the Democratic record in power weakens, and if the economic outlook remains bleak, an anti-incumbent opportunity - to the Republicans' benefit - may return.

There are certainly opportunities for a popular leader with compelling ideas to mobilise the party in support of a vision for its future, but those ideas need to exert a powerful appeal among the party's activists and politicians. Fundamental reinventions of the party - those that do not remain adequately faithful to core principles - are unlikely to carry such an appeal. Between the Great Depression and the Reagan years, Republicans never managed to agree an answer to the problem of their minority status; it is likely that the debate ahead for the party will be similarly complex.

Further Reading

Earl Black and Merle Black, The Rise of Southern Republicans (Cambridge, Mass., 2002)

Donald T. Critchlow, The Conservative Ascendancy: How the GOP Right Made Political History (Cambridge, Mass., 2007)

David Farber, The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism: A Short History (Princeton, N.J., 2010)

Lewis Gould, Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans (New York, 2003)

Geoffrey M. Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party (New York, 2012)

Robert Mason, The Republican Party and American Politics from Hoover to Reagan (New York, 2012)

Robert Mason and Iwan Morgan, eds., Seeking a New Majority: The Republican Party and American Politics, 1960-1980 (Nashville, Tenn., forthcoming in 2013)

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