June 8, 2003

Jay Bryant says it’s all about sex:

Political operatives care about the margin; they try to win elections by piling a sufficient percentage of marginal voters on top of the party base. Political scientists, on the other hand, care about the base. Not needing to worry about winning, they can back away from the trees and look at the forest. Never mind the margins – is the base changing?

For the Republicans to break the current statistical tie between the parties and establish a majority similar to the one the Democrats enjoyed in the decades before 1980, the base has to change.

What would make it change? Not an “issue of the day.” Republicans may be gaining ground among Hispanic voters, and those voters may be angry with the Democrats over the Estrada filibuster, but an issue like that does not change base voting habits – though it may move the margin in any given election.

To examine a demographic group for evidence of a significant shift in its political allegiance, one must look for changes within the group itself. Those seeking evidence among groups such as Hispanics, blacks, or labor union members are barking up the wrong tree.

The key group that is changing is neither ethnic nor occupational, it is generational.

Here’s a question: why didn’t the Republicans become the majority party following 1980? They moved from minority to parity, but could get no farther. Why? The answer lies in an understanding of the baby boom generation, and in particular its attitude toward one subject: sex.

Some boomers were sexual conservatives, but millions more believed the sexual revolution they themselves had wrought in their youth was a positive development. The Democrats survived as a parity party because they were the party of good sex. Although they were in favor of big government in every other way, they were absolutely against big government in the bedroom. Whether the overt issue was abortion, TV and movie ratings, sex education, gay rights, AIDS, the Clinton impeachment and even welfare reform, the sub rosa issue was sex.

On these code word issues, Democrats tacitly endorsed the sexual revolution; Republicans didn’t.

However much they might agree with Republicans on economics and defense/foreign policy, the pro-sex boomers just couldn’t abide the idea of turning the clock back on sexual permissiveness. To them, Republicans were preachy, moralistic, prudish. This group, which should have become post-Reagan Republicans, stopped short. Having left the Democratic base, they parked in the margin and refused to go farther.

As the Generation Xers began to enter the voting mix, those among them who believed in a permissive sexual atmosphere did not share the apprehensions of their like-minded elders. With no memories of the pre-sexual-revolution world, they couldn’t imagine it would ever return. They saw the old (technically and attitudinally) black-and-white films, with their men in fedoras and women in white gloves. It was all so quaint, no threat at all. Besides, when twelve years of Reagan and Bush the Elder didn’t produce sexual revanchment, the Xers figured it wasn’t likely to happen ever, no matter what Rick Santorum thinks.

Some of that attitude impacted the boomers, too, but of far more importance, the boomers were aging. A generational demographic cohort, unlike any other, will absolutely change within the span of a lifetime. The average baby boom woman today is in her 50’s, menopausal. She has not changed her stand on abortion, but whereas it was once a matter of personal concern, it is now merely a political opinion. The issue that drove the gender gap drives it no longer. She could perhaps even accept some modest restrictions.

Thus does sex recede as a wedge political issue. Whereas before, many boomers – men and women alike, including a growing number of gays – thought, “I’d be a Republican, except…” they now think, “I’m a Republican, although.”

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