By John Russonello
November 9, 2008
A relative political newcomer wins the presidency on a message that the party in the White House has got to go. The country blames the sitting president for a disastrous economy and for the disrespect America is receiving across the world. The newcomer attracts so many voters who do not usually vote for his party that the pundits label this a realignment election.
The year was 1980, when one in four Democrats voted Republican. They soon became known as Reagan Democrats.
Barack Obama accomplished a similar triumph by going outside his party's base of liberals and minorities and attracting an unusual share—for a Democrat—of moderates (60 percent), voters with college degrees and voters younger than 30. He even beat John McCain among Americans who earn more than $200,000 a year, despite Obama's promise to raise their taxes. This has the makings of a new coalition for the Democratic Party.
Obama's new coalition members, however, are not yet loyalists, just as the 1980 crossovers were not truly Reagan Democrats. The Reagan Democrats were making an anti-Carter statement. They disapproved of President Jimmy Carter's handling of the country's double-digit unemployment and inflation rates and the American hostage crisis in Iran. Obama's voters primarily cast an anti-Bush vote, a sobering thought for the president-elect.
It was not until 1984, when Reagan won an even larger landslide victory against Walter Mondale and expanded Republican identification to 35 percent of the electorate from 28 percent in 1980, that one could say these disaffected Democrats became Reagan loyalists. They were voting for Reagan more than they were voting against Mondale.
Reagan converted millions of voters by communicating optimism and giving people a higher sense of what it meant to be an American. He did not build a broader Republican Party by moving to the middle politically or by extending a welcoming hand to Democratic leaders. His policies, for the most part, were one-sided and conservative. He stood for a pro-corporate, free-market approach to issues within the U.S. He also pushed for a more muscular military presence abroad. On policy after policy—from his Star Wars nuclear-shield plan, to aiding the Nicaraguan contras, to firing the airport flight controllers—the public consistently opposed his policies. But Americans loved the music of Reagan's positive vision so much that they overlooked their distaste for the lyrics of policy. Reagan drew new people into the Republican Party by appealing to values, such as responsibility, patriotism, security and freedom.
The Reagan lesson for Obama is to focus, to communicate values and to refuse advice to tack to the middle.
Based on sentiments my opinion research firm hears from conservatives and liberals across America, here are three ideas for Obama to draw a new political landscape.
First, steer the country through the looming economic nightmare, using the values of responsibility and fairness as your compass. Our research has revealed that many conservatives were very upset about the shenanigans on Wall Street and other corporate excesses. These are people who truly believe in American capitalism and have no patience for those who break the rules.
Second, make good on one important social and economic need. There is no larger need than to reform the way health care is delivered. While Democrats and Republicans do not always see eye to eye on health care, there are plenty of Republican chief executive officers who know the future viability of their companies depends on taking health care out of the control of the insurance companies.
Third, give Americans a sense that their country is living up to its values and that they can be proud of America's place in the world. This will require a careful, but not prolonged, exit from Iraq. It also can be as simple as sending a message that our government will follow the Constitution and the rule of law as we fight terrorism.
Ronald Reagan used his enormous powers of persuasion to create a culture of individualism and selfishness that is the genesis of the economic meltdown we currently face.
Barack Obama has an opportunity to use his skills to begin to change this culture and to move the country to a place where government is not the enemy, and where the individual wins more often when we all win.
In four years we will know if the sound we heard across America last week was merely a collective Bronx cheer for outgoing President Bush, or if it was the siren of a new Democratic coalition that looks very different from the way the political parties are aligned today.
John Russonello is a partner in the public opinion research and strategic communications firm Belden Russonello Strategists in Washington.