Republicans have high hopes for the mid-term elections, but they are making fewer inroads than might be expected with one key group: Affluent voters. Polls show that the upper class has been remarkably loyal to President Obama, despite his efforts to rise their taxes and more heavily regulate Wall Street. If the GOP hopes to become a majority party, it needs to get serious about winning back its once-natural allies in upscale America -- and that means taking steps toward the center.
It is hardly news that Republicans have a problem with affluent voters. Mr. Obama won eight out of ten of the wealthiest counties in the country in 2008 and raised more money than John McCain in nearly all of the richest zip codes. This was no one-time fluke, either. John Kerry also won a majority of the wealthiest counties and, to the extent that Mr. Kerry came close to winning, it was because of tens of millions of dollars in donations to liberal 527 organizations by a long list of billionaires and multi-millionaires.
The GOP's weakness among the upper class is a big problem for its long-term prospects, and not just because these people are major political donors. The affluent also vote at much higher rates and influence public opinion by virtue of their positions of authority.
So how can Republican leaders win these people back? Well, for starters they can lay off the populism. Beating up on "elites" and extolling the likes of Joe the Plumber is not reassuring to high-powered types with post-grad degrees. These voters don't actually believe that the common man knows best - in fact, many believe quite the opposite and see the need for sophisticated leaders who can tap the best experts to cope with an increasingly complex world. The anti-intellectualism of George W. Bush was a major turn-off to educated affluent voters, while Mr. Obama's obvious intelligence and his high regard for expertise is very appealing.
Likewise, Republicans with majoritarian dreams should put a lid on the xenophobes in their ranks. Intolerance is anathema to many in the new U.S. wealth elite, which thinks in global terms and is always seeking the best talent - regardless of race, religion, or nationality. This group embraces multiculturalism as a key to success and their businesses often rely on highly skilled immigrants. Foreign-born technologists have long helped to power Silicon Valley, while many of the "quants" on Wall Street are immigrants or the children of immigrants.
Opposition to tougher environmental rules also hurts the GOP in certain upscale quarters. The new knowledge economy rich aren't worried about such rules because their industries don't produce much pollution. On the other hand, many of them do worry about climate change and view it as a profound threat. The no-nothing climate change deniers within the GOP, along with the party's disinterest in clean energy technology, underscores the emerging Republican profile -- that the party speaks for less-educated, downscale voters who tend to look backward not forward.
Finally, the GOP's anti-tax fanaticism holds little appeal in some affluent quarters. Plenty of wealthy people hate taxes, to be sure. But many can also live with higher rates and view taxes in pragmatic terms -- which is that sometimes we can afford low taxes and other times we can't. Alan Greenspan captured this outlook when he recently called for letting all the Bush tax cuts lapse. A GOP that is so opposed to taxes that it can't make rational fiscal choices does not inspire confidence among many wealthy voters worried about budget deficits.
Businessweek has a major new story about why business doesn't trust the Tea Party. The thrust very much tracks with the points made here. It notes that the Tea Party platform "may sound like a corporate dream come true -- as long as the corporation in question doesn't have international operations, rely on immigrant labor, see the value of national monetary policy, or find itself in need of a subsidy to boost exports or an emergency loan from the Fed to survive the worst recession in seven decades."
The Republican Party doesn't need to abandon its core principles to woo back some of the affluent voters that it has lost in recent years. But it does need to show more flexibility in how those principles are applied so that it seems serious about tackling major problems like climate change and the deficit. And standing up to intolerant, extremist voices in the party is an absolute must if the GOP wants to do better in upscale America.
Republicans may never win a majority in Malibu or the Upper West Side. But they can win back affluent voters in many other places, particularly the wealthiest suburbs that have been fast turning Democratic.