Where Does the GOP Go From Here?

Republican insiders consider party's future after low turnout and heavy losses.

November 5, 2008, 4:45 PM

Nov. 6, 2008— -- John McCain no doubt woke up Wednesday morning asking himself the question that perpetually pesters all losing candidates the day after: What happened?

Trying to determine why once-faithful Republicans chose Tuesday to simply not turn up at the polls, or chose instead to vote for Democrat Barack Obama, is not just a question for the candidate but for the entire party.

Fewer Republicans turned out to vote Tuesday than in any election in 28 years, a key component to the party's crushing defeat in which it lost control of the White House and allowed the Democrats to maintain control of Congress.

Obama beat McCain in the key states of Florida, Virginia and Ohio, all of which went red in 2004.

"The biggest question for Republicans is what this means," said Dan Schnur, a former McCain adviser and a professor of political science at UC Berkeley. "Are we going to get over this quickly, or will it take years to make fundamental changes and come to terms about where we stand as a party?"

GOP insiders are pointing fingers the day after Election Day at many of the specters that haunted the McCain campaign for months -- an association with an unpopular president, an unpopular war, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and a candidate who was never fully embraced by his own party.

Just 28 percent of McCain voters were "excited" about the prospect of his becoming president, according exit polls. By contrast, twice as many Obama supporters, 56 percent, were excited about the prospect of an Obama presidency.

An inability to turn out its supporters and an uncertainty about why leaves the party on the shakiest ground in two decades, with GOP insiders speculating where the party goes from here.

"We're all focused on the history nature of Barack Obama's candidacy, but the other story here is that Republicans simply stayed home," said ABC News political consultant and former Pentagon spokesperson Torie Clarke. "Obama didn't do extraordinarily better with young and first-time voters; the Republican Party's base just didn't turn out."

What Went Wrong for McCain?

Democratic turnout on Election Day outnumbered Republicans by 7 points, 39 percent to 32 percent -- the smallest Republican turnout since 1980.

It was concerns about the economy that lost the election for McCain, and no amount of additional funding to catch up with the millions Obama spent in advertising could have made up for it, Clarke said.

But even amid such a crisis, another candidate more popular with the GOP's many and sometimes fractious factions -- particularly social conservatives -- could have at least gotten people to show up, she said.

"McCain has always had an uneasy relationship with Republicans," Clarke said, "but that he could not speak to the base of the party raises questions about both his message and the people who were receiving it."

"The party is going to wander around in the wilderness for a while as it works on what its message should be. It will not necessarily be a simple or clean process," she said.

According to Schnur, it is too early to tell if Republicans who flipped for Obama will remain loyal like those Democrats who voted for Reagan in 1980 and again in 1984.

"We'll have to see how Obama performs before we'll know. Unlike swing voters who switched, Republicans just were not motivated," he said.

What is now looming for many Republicans is a fight over which wing of the party will wrest control of the GOP's mantle, right wing social and fiscal conservatives, like Newt Gingrich, evangelical Christians, like Mike Huckabee, or moderate Republicans, like Rudy Giuliani.

For the past 40 years, the GOP's success has come from a broad coalition of conservatives. Evangelical Christians who have pushed a pro-life, values-based agenda have made strange but powerful bedfellows with libertarians and fiscal conservatives who want small government and a laissez-faire approach to their lives and finances.

Isolationists who do not support U.S. intervention in foreign affairs have supported and voted for the same candidates backed by neo-conservatives who believe the U.S. has the right to extend its power anywhere in the world.

GOP Looking Ahead

That coalition, which experts say has been fraying for years, could ultimately be undone by this election. Each faction believes it represents the soul of the party and each is jockeying to become the base on which the party's new incarnation should be built.

"The Republican Party and the conservative coalition is an unstable compound that has been coming apart for several years," said Richard Norton Smith, an ABC News consultant and former director of the Lincoln, Hoover, Eisenhower, Reagan and Ford libraries. "The immigration debate illustrated that dramatically and the infighting around the Wall Street bailout even more so. Pat Buchanan isolationist Republicans have little in common with Wall Street Republicans, and libertarian Republicans have little in common with the religious right."

"The party will have to decide which of those strains will revive the party and lead it into the future." he said.

Ed Rollins, a Republican strategist and chairman of Gov. Mike Huckabee's primary run, predicted that the party could not move forward if it turned its back on the religious right.

"You don't just walk away from religious voters," Rollins said. "They make up 39 percent of the populace. You build from there to get to 51 percent. Whether the party moves more to the right or more to the center, we're in an era of personality politics, and picking a candidate everyone can get behind is essential."

Rollins predicted that many of the contenders for the nomination were still players in the party's future.

"Huckabee has the religious right and is in it," he said. "Giuliani, more of a moderate, is still in it. Romney, who no one knows if he is socially conservative or not, is in it. And [vice-presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah] Palin will almost certainly play a role."

For Schnur, the fight for the soul of the party will not come down to social conservatives versus moderates but how the party structures a future economic policy.

"More important than the ongoing debate between social conservatives and moderates is the debate over what consists of economic conservatism going forward," he said. "One group believes Reaganism as an economic philosophy is just as valid today as it was in 1980. On the other side is an emerging group who are more populist and believe the party needs to better respond to the problems facing voters."

Schnur's short list of future party leaders also included Palin, as well as Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Jindal, a rising star in the party, will later this month attend an event sponsored by the conservative Iowa Family Policy Center in Iowa, the first state to hold a primary in 2012.

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