Why the “Reagan Democrats” Stayed Home on Election Day 2012

As potential candidates for the Republican presidential nomination contemplate the political landscape for 2016, they all might benefit from some of the down-to-earth insights offered by the GOP candidate who actually won the Iowa caucuses in the last go-around.   Rick Santorum, former two-term Pennsylvania senator who edged Mitt Romney by 34 votes in Iowa in 2012, is now no doubt contemplating another run along with a host of others, though conventional wisdom would probably not put him in the top tier.

But in his latest book published last year, “Blue Collar Conservatives:  Recommitting to an America that Works,” Santorum draws our attention to an all-too-often overlooked constituency that can be an important building block of a restored Republican-conservative majority – if there is to be one – at the presidential level.   That somewhat amorphous constituency might be more commonly known as the “Reagan Democrats,” many of whom have morphed politically in recent years away from the stridently leftist turn within the Democratic Party nationally, to become either Independents or in some cases quasi-Republicans, though not exactly reliably so.

In broad strokes, these are hard-working Americans, many residing in the nation’s Rust Belt and in diverse ethnic neighborhoods – often with a history of union membership and old-line Democratic party loyalties and instincts – concerned foremost about their own jobs and the economy, both of which have taken a pounding in recent years.  By and large, they tend to be more traditional, family-oriented, religious and patriotic in their overall outlook as compared to the more strident Democrat-leftist “revolutionaries” (as Santorum calls them) bent on radical social and societal transformation.

The Reagan Democrat constituency – which provided decisively important votes in the Reagan-Bush victories of the 1980s and in  the Bush-43 victories of 2000 and 2004 – did not seem to be very well courted by the Republican nominees in 2008 and in 2012.  Indeed by some estimates, more than six million of these voters stayed home in 2012 rather than support either the Republican or the Democratic presidential candidates.  This was the kind of disaster for Republicans that Santorum urges his fellow Republican presidential candidates to help avoid at all costs in 2016.

He recommends a renewed focus on real issues of concern to these voters, including the disintegration of families, the perverse incentives of a welfare system detached from appropriate work requirements, the economic uncertainty caused by the loss of stable manufacturing and other jobs, the growing threats to retirement security, the predictable failures of ObamaCare, the mediocrity of government-run schools, and the foolishness of policies that restrict domestic energy development where it can be done safely while boosting local economies, for example.

It is unfortunate for Santorum that the major media have sought unfairly to pigeon-hole him as the Johnny-one-note candidate of the hard-core social issues whose only message centers on such things as abortion, gay marriage and contraception, when in fact this is not true.   While his common-sense traditional stances on these issues are a part of his makeup and reflective of the views of millions of Americans in the blue collar Reagan Democrat constituency, Santorum’s book includes no harsh screeds or lengthy discussion on these matters.  Instead he emphasizes much more strongly the bread-and-butter economic issues affecting the well-being and upward mobility of average American families.

Interestingly, Santorum is critical of what he calls the “talk only about deficits and growth wing” of the Republican Party – not because it avoids the social issues – but rather because it avoids some of the real day-to-day economic concerns people are dealing with in their own lives.  He did not like, for example, the much-hyped “you built that” GOP convention theme in 2012 – in reaction to Obama’s “you didn’t build that” admonition to business-creators.  Santorum thought it was politically misguided for Republicans to spend so much time on that theme to the exclusion of others.  He noted that while he didn’t disagree with the substance of that message, for him it “didn’t have much to say about the struggles of working families,” who in the end are a much bigger voting constituency than are the job creators themselves.

Santorum wants to see a renewed Republican focus on addressing poverty in America through encouraging strategies that work, rather than throwing more money at the same old programs that ignore the root causes of the problem, like the growth of out-of wedlock births, the scourge of absentee fathers and the lack of good jobs.   He wants to repeal ObamaCare, noting the illogic of Democratic ideological advocates like Obama who – even before its enactment — only applauded when the Congressional Budget Office predicted that the law would lead to the loss of over 2.5 million jobs.

Santorum wants to put a priority on entitlement reform through such option as a 401K approach for younger workers in Social Security and a greater market approach for Medicare. He notes that the biggest threat to these programs is the bankruptcy of the U.S. government, an eventuality than can no longer be blithely ruled out as unthinkable.

If there is one glaring omission in Santorum’s pantheon of issues with which Republicans can better appeal to his self-described blue collar constituency it would have to be in the realm of defense and national security, where the Reagan Democrats of an earlier era responded positively to the clarion calls to defend freedom from a Republican candidate and leader – Reagan – focused on winning the Cold War.

Republicans and conservatives today need a strong new voice on the national security challenges of the present day, not only in the wake of the unsatisfactory outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan for which there is bipartisan responsibility, but also in response to the current administration’s deliberate policies that are undermining America’s strength in the face of growing international threats across the globe. The failure of the 2008 and 2012 Republican candidates to strike bold and persuasive chords on these issues should not be repeated.

The challenge for all of the Republican presidential hopefuls in 2016 will be to formulate a winning message than can help unify the disparate and often bickering Republican and conservative ranks.  At the same time, that message must also appeal to a broader coalition in the country – to include a sizable segment of Democrats and Independents – that will be capable of capturing the votes needed to reverse the leftist political and cultural tide that energized the Obama elections of 2008 and 2012 and that now still forms the core of the Democrats’ presidential campaign message arsenal.

By reminding us of the political importance of the Reagan Democrats – the blue collar conservatives – Santorum shines a light on a political path that others should also seek to travel in the campaign ahead. These are voters the Republican Party can ill afford to abandon for what arguably would be the third presidential election in a row.

Gary Hoitsma served as special assistant to Ray Barnhart during Barnhart’s tenure as Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, under President Ronald Reagan and is a former aide to U.S. Senator James Inhofe. Mr. Hoitsma is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.