No sooner had this year's election ended than nearly every conservative emerged to declare that Republicans had been defeated for betraying the One True Faith. Republicans, George Will wrote, "were punished not for pursuing but for forgetting conservatism." John McCain, who a few years ago was castigating his fellow Republicans for veering too far right, was now accusing them of the opposite, saying they "lost their way" by supporting big government.
Well, let's go to the exit polls. If Republicans lost because they abandoned conservatism, you'd see a big drop-off among conservative or Republican voters. Didn't happen. In 2004, 93% of self-identified Republicans voted for President Bush. This year, 91% voted for their GOP House candidate. The percentage of voters who identified themselves as conservatives barely budged, falling by just two points, from 34% to 32%, according to exit polls.
All the GOP losses occurred in the center. In 2004, Bush lost among independents by just a single point. In 2006, independents voted Democratic by a massive 19-point margin.
If there's one thing that this election has definitely taught us, it's that Karl Rove's "satisfy the base" strategy is dead. The conventional wisdom prior to Rove was that in order to win, you had to capture the middle. You needed to keep your base supporters on board of course, but the margin of victory is determined by that slice of the electorate who can potentially be persuaded to vote either way. Then Rove came along and turned that wisdom on its head. As he figured it, he could win by energizing the Republican base and ignoring everyone else. There was this strange belief that their base was potentially much larger and more motivated than it actually is, and that therefore they could keep a permanent majority simply by running to the right and satisfying movement conservatives.
It was always a ridiculous strategy. Yet Rove was declared a genius because it appeared to work in 2002 and 2004. This was after running Bush as a moderate in 2000, only to have him turn around and act like a right-wing crazybag the second the election was over. In order to believe that Rove deserves credit for these wins, however, you have to ignore the 9/11 attacks and the shameless way in which the Republicans took political advantage of them. And then there was the Iraq war. In 2002, by sheer coincidence the drum-beat of war began in September just prior to the election, an election in which Rove told his candidates to "run on the war". By 2004 the war wasn't going so well, yet one of the most common refrains was that it was a bad idea to switch out the Commander in Chief during a time of war, and that Bush's "stay the course" strategy (which they have since denied ever adhering to) was a sure path to victory. On top of that, Bush was getting higher marks than Kerry for dealing with terrorism, perhaps the only issue on which Bush polled better.
So now we've seen what happens when the Republicans cannot rely merely on demagoguery. Their systematic alienation of everyone to the left of Rush Limbaugh has caught up with them, yet they still only see themselves as the only demographic that matters. I don't expect this to change much either, since it seems to be an endemic myth of the conservative movement that conservatives are the only key to victory, and damn what the moderates think. It's so bad that one leading conservative even blamed the Republican loss of '74 on conservative dissatisfaction with the moderate policies of Nixon and Ford, seemingly unaware of a little scandal called Watergate.