Differing advice for Republican Party in wake of disappointing 2012 elections with some relevant Harris County data

March 25, 2013 4:48:26 PM PDT
Last week in Washington, D.C., Chairman Reince Priebus of the Republican National Committee rolled out a 97 page report. Officially titled the "Growth and Opportunity Project," but more accurately described as an autopsy of the deceased Romney/Ryan campaign, the report dissected what the RNC thinks went wrong in 2012 and what the GOP needs to do as it moves forward.

The report is brutally critical of the party's recent efforts to reach the growing number of minority voters, young adults, and single women that have been moving toward the Democrats since the 2004 presidential election. Much of the report deals with improving the presidential nomination processes, technology, and message delivery, but there is one major substantive recommendation. "We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform." There is also strong criticism of the Washington congressional party as being out of touch with the concerns of many voters, in contrast to the Republican governors that hold office in 30 of the 50 states.

Reactions have varied, but many conservative commentators have differed with the thrust of the RNC report. Typical was Rush Limbaugh's harsh rebuttal that what the Republican Party does not need is a bunch of Washington consultants trying to take the party toward some alleged "center" in American politics, but rather a return to a strong, clear conservative message. Limbaugh and other conservative pundits attribute the presidential losses in 2008 and 2012 to the Republican Party's nomination of John McCain and Mitt Romney, moderates who they claim did not energize the conservative base.

So who's right: Reince or Rush? One way to check this out is to look at some local data that bear's on Mr. Limbaugh's contention that the conservative base just did not turn out for McCain and Romney, causing their defeats. While Harris County is a very purple county ? with equal numbers of Democrats and Republican voters in presidential elections these days ? there are some very conservative and very stable neighborhoods within the county, that enable us to test the "conservatives stayed home" thesis by looking at vote patterns in recent presidential elections. Three such areas are Harris County voting precincts 0452, 0558, and 0853.

Census data from 2000 and 2010 show that these three precincts had almost exactly the same number of non-Hispanic voting age whites ("Anglos"). These voters make up the overwhelming majority of the conservative Republican vote base in Harris County and in the nation as a whole. In 2000, there were 2,782 voting age Anglos in precinct 0452, and 2,812 in 2010. For precinct 0588, the comparable numbers were 2,990 and 2,854. And for precinct 0853, 2,189 and 2,129.

The table below shows the two-party vote for president in 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012. In the first two elections, the Republican candidate was George W. Bush, who had strong support from the conservative wing of his party, compared to the "moderates" McCain and Romney.

    Precinct 0452 Rep. Vote Dem Vote Rep. % Rep. Margin
  • 2000 1,113 360 75.5% +753
  • 2004 1,201 381 75.9% +820
  • 2008 1,212 449 73.0% +763
  • 2012 1,310 403 76.5% +903

    Precinct 0558 Rep. Vote Dem Vote Rep. % Rep. Margin
  • 2000 1,527 420 78.4% +1,107
  • 2004 1,644 479 77.4% +1,165
  • 2008 1,646 571 74.2% +1,075
  • 2012 1,713 633 73.0% +1,080

    Precinct 0883 Rep. Vote Dem Vote Rep. % Rep. Margin
  • 2000 1,445 264 84.6% +1,181
  • 2004 1,551 309 83.4% +1,242
  • 2008 1,559 452 77.5% +1,107
  • 2012 1,556 428 78.4% +1,128

These local data provide no support for the argument that Republicans lost the last two presidential elections because conservatives stayed home. To the contrary, the 2008 and 2012 nominees actually got more votes in these precincts than Mr. Bush received in 2000 and 2004. National election studies come to the same conclusion ? conservatives voted in 2008 and 2012, and they voted overwhelmingly for John McCain and Mitt Romney. (See Barack Obama and the New American: The 2012 Election and the Changing Face of Politics, edited by Larry Sabato, p. 30).

The GOP problem was not with conservatives, but with the larger numbers of minority voters, younger voters, and single women than turned out in the 2008 and 2012 contests. Given the growth of these elements of the electorate, the RNC's recommendations seem more on point than Mr. Limbaugh's exhortation to go back to a stronger conservative message.

Click here to read more from Dr. Murray.

About Dr. Richard Murray

Richard Murray is a native of Louisiana with B.A. and M.A. degrees in Government from Louisiana State University (1962, 1963) and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota (1967). Dr. Murray has taught at the University of Houston since 1966 and is currently the Bob Lanier Professor of Public Policy in the UH Department of Political Science and Director of Surveying for the UH Center for Public Policy.

His academic interests are in Houston and Texas politics, focusing on campaigns and elections, political parties and interest groups, and public opinion. Professor Murray has written extensively in these areas, while teaching courses ranging from graduate seminars to introductory American Government.

In a previous life, Professor Murray consulted in more than 200 political campaigns before completing the 12-step recovery program in the late 1980s. He occasionally conducts polls for local media and governments and is a political analyst for Channel 13, KTRK Television.

Professor Murray is married to Deborah Hartman, and has three sons, Robert, Keir, and Dylan Murray.
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