In “Hearing the People” (January 22), a generally spot-on assessment of how Republicans should react to populism, Henry Olsen writes: “The combined might of the five core groups of movement conservatism had been unable to win a presidential election since 2004, and has carried the popular vote in only one presidential election since the fall of the Berlin Wall.” Analysts who paint a dire picture of the GOP’s prospects love to quote popular-vote results, but it’s like saying which team got more hits in a baseball game: mildly interesting but ultimately meaningless. The presidential popular vote is a crude approximation of an opinion poll, heavily influenced by the personal qualities of the two candidates (who, among other things, make no effort to compete in three of the four largest states). With all the actual opinion polling that’s available, not to mention congressional, gubernatorial, and legislative elections, why focus on this one small and statistically eccentric data set?
Olsen goes on to refute himself in the next sentence: “If the point of a coalition is to win . . .” Exactly. If the point of a coalition is to win, why does Olsen quote a statistic that has nothing to do with winning? The Republicans have won half the presidential elections since Reagan, so I’d say they’re doing just fine by that standard.
Henry Olsen responds: There are two reasons to think that the popular-vote statistic matters. First, it indicates an ability to win House seats. Failing to do well in blue states over time means that there is less Republican support to elect House members in areas that might be open to GOP appeals. The likely loss of several such seats in California, Washington, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey in November will be the direct result of building a coalition that is too narrow to sustain itself over time.
The other reason has to do with enacting real change. A real change in the direction of the country can occur only when a supermajority of Americans get behind a president or his party over a series of elections. That is what produces the large majorities in Congress that can enact a series of changes, not just pass one bill such as Obamacare or the recent tax reform and then lose the majority immediately thereafter. Democrats changed America because they held such a supermajority of public opinion from 1932 until the end of Reagan’s first term. Conservatives who want to really rule and not simply slow down liberalism’s progress need to aspire to similar dominance.