Is Our Parties Learning?

In a recent post,the estimable Jon Bernstein of A Plain Blog about Politics considers the question of whether Republicans would blame a Romney loss on Hurricane Sandy. He concludes that this would be a good outcome, because the alternative is Republicans blaming the media and increasing toxic polarization and mistrust in the polity. For Bernstein the key point is this: “We can guarantee one thing: Republicans will not interpret it as confirmation that the American people prefer the Democrats’ ideas to their ideas (for which they would be correct, by the way; that’s not how elections work).”

Jon really is one of the most astute analysts out there, but I have to take issue with the “soft bigotry of low expectations” he exhibits vis-a-vis the GOP, to quote his fellow Texan. Jon may be right that next week Republicans would not interpret a Romney loss, (or a worse than expected performance in Congressional races) as a confirmation that their ideas (or some of their ideas) are unpopular, but parties have repeatedly drawn such conclusions in the past and with some reason. Even if most scholars think that party identification plus “valence “ issues like the state of the economy and war and peace explain most voters’ choices, there is still some increment parties may hope to influence. In this respect parties do “learn”, even if not all of what they learn is correct.

In a classic article Marjorie Hershey shows that the dominant narrative emerging from Mondale’s 49 state loss, following on Carter’s almost equally poor showing four years earlier was that the Democratic Party needed to move to the center. Mondale was said to have alienated voters by promising to raise taxes and being too close to “special interests” i.e. Democratic constituencies such as unions, feminists, racial minorities and gays and lesbians.

Hershey goes on to note that this interpretation of the election was not necessarily valid and that much of it was spun by the media and not political scientists. Reagan benefited from an enormous election year economic recovery, so the result may have had little to do with Mondale’s positioning or associations.

Yet Democrats did “learn a lesson”, correct or otherwise, from their loss. The Democratic Leadership Council was founded in an effort to move the party back to “the center.” This did not happen overnight or without intra-party conflict, but it happened. Four years later Michael Dukakis, unlike Mondale, picked a running-mate who was clearly to his right, Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, did not pledge to raise taxes and protested that the election was “not about ideology, but about competence.” Dukakis lost badly as well, albeit not as overwhelmingly as Mondale or Carter. In 1992 the DLC finally got its candidate in Bill Clinton. He ran as a “New Democrat”, one who would “end welfare as we know it” and who, unlike Mondale or Dukakis, supported the death penalty in an era when crime rates were higher than they are today. He was also a southern white male, i.e. a member of the demographic in which Democrats’ fortunes had declined most greatly.

A less dramatic response to repeated defeat was the rise of “compassionate conservatism” in the GOP. Republicans lost two Presidential elections to Bill Clinton in the 1990s. After that their attempt to remove him from office was followed by the first midterm election since 1934 in which the party not controlling the White House lost seats in the House. This paved the way for George W. Bush’s shift from the policies associated with Gingrich and Dole. Gone was the pledge to abolish the Department of Education, instead Bush promoted “No Child Left Behind.” Gone were the attacks on Medicare. Instead, Bush created a prescription drug entitlement for Medicare recipients. Other aspects of compassionate conservatism included a decreased use of racial issues. The 1990s GOP had supported attacks on affirmative action such as Proposition 209 in California. The Bush White House did not continue this. When a similar initiative was on the ballot in Michigan Bush did not support it.

There are many other examples of parties moderating after repeated defeat. Republicans nominated moderate candidates who accepted the New Deal as a fait accompli from 1940 to 1960 after losing badly twice to FDR. Tony Blair’s ”New Labour”, established after four defeats and influenced by Bill Clinton’s example is one case. David Cameron’s more moderate Tories, who only emerged after three defeats by Blair, is another.

There are many “lessons” out there that parties may learn. Some may have little basis, as Hershey notes. There are also different ways to adapt. Republicans could revisit their position on immigration (something elite opinion would like them to do) or they could reconsider the Ryan Plan (which elite opinion finds much more congenial). In this case a narrow loss might be initially blamed on Romney’s failings. There is also never a shortage of ideologues ready to say that insufficient fidelity to the party’s principles was the real problem. These explanations, a poor spokesman and insufficient conviction, are naturally palatable to ideologues so they are only cast aside with reluctance and following repeated losses. Yet in the end parties want to win and they do learn and adapt. If today’s GOP is an exception that is a very big deal because what parties take away from their defeats influences they way they position themselves in the future. It matters not just for 2016 but for the behavior of elected officials during the next four years.

12 Responses to Is Our Parties Learning?

  1. Andrew Gelman November 2, 2012 at 12:18 pm #


    Sure, but losing 60-40 (as with Mondale) isn’t like losing 51-49 (as is predicted for Romney). Also, after the 2008 election, lots of people recommended that Republicans react to their loss by moving to the center. But, with the help of their primary electorates, the Republicans rejected that advice. They moved to the right, scored big in 2010, and might yet bring down an incumbent party in 2012. So I don’t see this as a “learn and adapt” situation. If Romney were losing 60-40, that would be another story.

  2. Nadia Hassan November 2, 2012 at 1:23 pm #

    Another thing of note and interest–the electorate is a lot more polarized nowadays and that makes mobilization and persuasion important. Getting partisans to turnout is quite critical, especially because a lot of pure independents and weak partisans care about the economy and performance most.

  3. David Karol November 2, 2012 at 2:36 pm #

    Andrew: I agree that a Mondale-style disaster is more of a teachable moment than Romney losing the swing states, but expectations and understanding of the context matter too. Given the 2010 election and the weak economy, Republicans think they SHOULD be able to beat Obama and, in many cases, still expect to do so.. John Sides’ constant repetition of the fact that a meh, slightly recovering economy may be enough for an incumbent President to eke out a win has NOT, been broadly internalized yet in political and media discussions. People will register that Obama won even with a weak economy. Maybe Republicans will brush this off in a “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” manner, but doing so would make them a pretty unusual party in historical perspective and that would be worth explaining.

  4. OGT November 2, 2012 at 4:23 pm #

    One thing to keep in mind when looking at the economic deterministic political models is that they are in large part contingent on the political parties adapting to changing electoral realities. The Southern strategy was, I think, an example of that, as is Bush’s compassionate conservatism.

    As Obama speculated, I think the GOP immigration position would be up for review if they lose. On the Dem side it’s harder to see, because the political groups they struggle with currently are at odds with elite opinion. Perhaps they will show even less willingness to touch senior entitlements (Medicare vote) or more protectionist policies (white working class).

  5. OGT November 2, 2012 at 4:25 pm #

    Also, if both Murdock and Akin lose, I suspect the GOP will have a real fight over social issues.

  6. Erik M. November 2, 2012 at 5:06 pm #

    Losing 51-49, or even “losing” 48-49, can trigger this kind of learning, I think; isn’t that the usual explanation for the Democrats’ sudden abandonment of gun control as an issue after Gore’s narrow loss in 2000, including the loss of once strongly Democratic West Virginia?

  7. Eric L. November 2, 2012 at 9:22 pm #

    This being the Monkey Cage, I feel obligated to point out other political science research on the subject. For those interested in the subject, Phil Klinkner’s _The Losing Parties
    Out-party National Committees, 1956-93_ (Yale UP 1995) is worth a look. Klinker draws out some differences in the responses of the Democrats vs. the Republicans to losing presidential elections.

  8. DrunkWino November 3, 2012 at 2:41 am #

    One real problem the GOP has is the repackaged Religious Right, the Tea Party. The Tea Party you could describe as an extremist group since people either love them or hate them it seems. They’re wielding a lot of power (probably a little more than they really should,) in the GOP for a move to the middle. Even worse, it looks like conservative TV/radio is just egging them on to move even further to the right, if that’s possible. Moderate Republicans, even sitting Republicans, are losing against Tea Party backed opponents. Not only does that add another far right voice and vote in Federal and State governments, the worst might be the removal of that moderate voice and scaring other moderate voices to move to the far right (John McCain.)

    Romney is a special case. He had to do a lot of fast talking (that looks like it’s biting him in the rear a bit,) to convince the Tea Party voters that he wasn’t a moderate. Even then he had a tough primary run between him, the Newtster, Ron Paul, and that rather wacko Santorium.

    I think that the GOP will end up having to take a few steps backward and lose more than a couple elections before moderates can take the party to somewhere close to center. The other option, probably a long shot, would see the moderates get frustrated enough to split away from the Republican party. On the other hand, Tea Party GOP’ers could get frustrated if moderates try and move the party to the center and they split off. Yeah, I realize there are long odds of that happening, but it might start looking like a viable option.

    I will admit I think that would be a good idea. A viable third party would force everyone to work across party lines to get anything at all done. Depending on how this election shakes out, I might just register the website “”

  9. Joe November 3, 2012 at 8:58 am #

    An equally interesting question in an essentially 50-50 election is can the WINNERS learn from the election. Assuming a close win for the Democrats, will they seize the opportunity to make the party more palatable to ‘moderate’ independents and Republicans.

    Before everyone jumps in and point out how polarized the electorate is and that there are few so-called ‘moderates’ that are not already in the D column, I’d point out that polling of voters views on issues still points to a significant number of voters who have ‘moderate’ views on abortion, immigration, debt reduction and tax relief, the environment, military spending and foreign policy.

    The Democrats have an opportunity of forging a new plurality, perhaps even a majority as the demographics work in their favor IF they are seen trying to deal with these issues in a more moderate and less dogmatic way.

    If Obama works quickly (he really has less than two years) to strike a responsible compromise on deficit reduction that includes some entitlement reform as well as tax reform; if he makes a best effort attempt on a comprehensive immigration bill; if he continues (some would say start) regulatory reform measures; and if the Democrats can once again be the “pro-choice” alternative instead of the ‘pro-abortion’ party, they can grow their base and reap the harvest of new and younger voters.


  10. Fets November 5, 2012 at 4:22 am #

    It is such a shame that politics is about attracting “the center” and orientating one’s self based on valence issues rather than actual debate, actual discussion, actual argument for what works, actual content and politics. The answer shouldnt be for people in parties to change their beliefs(or at least what they actually propose to people), but to engage in discussion and argument. It is absolutely disgusting that all this shit about image and shallow takes on political problems are utterly dominant in politics rather than reason, evidence, actual values rather than puppeted values to attract some group, etc etc.

    • DrunkWino November 5, 2012 at 1:51 pm #

      And I see it differently. I avoid voting for someone who pledges to vote his/her values exclusively, even if I agree with those views. The choice, as I see it, is who would you rather put into power, someone who acts like a representative of the people he or she is representing or someone who thinks they have a mandate to rule regardless of what the people who voted for him or her think.

      I think that’s part of the reason why there’s so much gridlock and polarization in politics nowadays. Every politician does what he/she thinks that they can get or keep 51% of the vote and to hell with what anybody else thinks. I think things are just going to get worse as time goes on unless politicians do start governing toward the center. After all, nobody wants to live in a country in which one party has shoved it’s extreme wing beliefs down our throat. Even the people who’d cheer if their hardcore beliefs won would be the first in line fighting against the other sides extreme wing won power.

  11. david b November 10, 2012 at 10:06 pm #

    Difference between us and china and former soviet union is that the aforementioned has/had one political party and we have two.

    we are Not a republic any more of even a democracy. We are an Oligarky (ruled by a few) who control the electoral process through the party system, the same way china, communist russia, nazi germany (before hitler was made chansler for life by the power structure — backfired royally)