Among the reasons Time magazine gave for naming George W. Bush its "Person of the Year" for 2000 was that the president-elect "remade and united the Republican Party." The magazine got it half right. Bush is president because he reunited much of the GOP coalition. But the other piece of praise was premature; indeed, remaking the Republican Party to broaden its base of support is the pre-eminent political challenge Bush faces after squeezing into office with the narrowest Electoral College majority in 124 years.
From his highly diverse first round of Cabinet appointments, it's clear Bush wants to remake the GOP. But it's equally clear that he didn't make much progress in last month's election.
Bush won his slim victory far more by consolidating than expanding the Republican base. He recaptured a series of conservative-leaning states (primarily in the South and West) and voter groups (such as white males) that had drifted toward Bill Clinton in 1996. But Bush mostly failed to attract the principal target for his "compassionate conservatism" message: moderate swing voters in the big suburbs outside the South. That failure leaves Bush with a formidable political puzzle: How to reach out to the centrist voters who resisted him, without alienating the culturally conservative voters to whom he owes his new job.
The electoral map tells a clear story. Bush gained ground on two principal fronts. First, he re-established the Republican dominance of the South; Bush won every state of the old Confederacy, plus Oklahoma and Kentucky. Second, Bush restored a commanding Republican advantage in rural America. With Ross Perot twice siphoning off some socially conservative rural voters, Clinton ran about even in small-town America during his two races. But this time, Bush ran up huge margins in just about every county with a cow.
Bush recaptured 11 states that voted for Clinton in 1996. About half of them were Southern and border states with substantial rural populations (Louisiana, Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee and Florida, a special case); in almost all of the rest (Arizona, Nevada, Ohio, Missouri and West Virginia), rural votes were key to Bush's advance. Bush's only breakthrough in a Northern state with a large stake in the new economy was New Hampshire, which he carried by fewer than 8,000 votes.
Overall, Bush lost 71 percent of the electoral votes at stake outside of the South. And he fell short in almost all of the coastal and Midwestern suburbs where he had hoped to convince voters that he was "a different kind of Republican."
In the quarter-century after 1968, Republicans held the White House for 20 of 24 years, and these suburbs were the backbone of the GOP's electoral majority.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.