US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

Fifty years ago today, Americans opened their morning papers to read about the demise of the Republican Party. “Landslide Lyndon” — the epithet hurled at Lyndon Johnson after he (dubiously) won his 1948 Senate nomination by .01 percent of the vote — had finally made good on his nickname, defeating Barry Goldwater by a historic margin. Both the GOP and conservatism seemed to have been entombed in the rubble. “Barry Goldwater not only lost the Presidential election yesterday,” wrote columnist James Reston, “but the conservative cause as well.”

Reston captured the conventional wisdom following the election. Conservatism had been tried and rejected. If the Republican Party were to “cling to and strengthen” its ties to the conservative movement, as Goldwater advised in his concession speech, it would be consigned to permanent minority status.

We know what happened next. Liberalism shattered on the shoals of recession and war, the Republican Party purged its moderates and tacked right, and in 1980, Ronald Reagan won the first of two terms with 489 electoral votes.

As we wait for the results of today’s election, the response to Goldwater’s defeat serves as a stark reminder of how limited the predictive power of elections can be. Elections can tell us a great deal about where we are, but they are not so great at telling us where we’re heading.

In the aftermath of 1964, prescriptions for Republican renewal all pointed in the same direction: Get rid of the right and restore the liberal-moderate faction to power. The editors of the New York Times advised, “If the Republican party is to rise out of the depths into which Senator Goldwater has plunged it, it will now have to shake off once and for all the incubus of the radical right. It will have to forget Goldwater and extremism.” If the GOP was to ever win another election, it must “reconstitute itself once again as a reasonable, modern-minded party.”

Thus teed up, the moderates launched a fight for control of the Republican Party. A New York Republican speaking the day after the election laid out the moderates’ argument: “The Republican Party has paid a shattering price for the erratic deviation from our soundly moderate 20th century course. That ill-advised, badly led swing to the extreme right has been decisively vetoed by the American voters.” But their efforts to remake the GOP as the party of civil rights and good governance failed. The party lurched to the right and left them behind.

The same dynamics were at play in 2008. After the GOP losses that year, obituaries for the Republican Party proliferated. Republican strategist Mike Murphy wrote in mid-2009, “A GOP ice age is on the way.” In calling for “a Republican reformation,” he argued that the party must be modernized “to reflect the country it inhabits instead of an America that no longer exists.”

These parallels are not meant to suggest that the Second Coming of Reagan is nigh. The GOP faces genuine challenges to the coalition upon which it has relied for the past 40 years. But demographics are not destiny: Coalitions are built, not born. As the GOP’s post-Goldwater comeback demonstrates, it is possible to build successful coalitions that buck the prevailing trends of the day.

Since the 2008 election, the analysis of Republican need for moderation has hardened into conventional wisdom. GOP victories in 2010, and likely victories in 2014, have led commentators to add that their moderation thesis has a midterm exception, but the underlying principle is the same: Reform or die. Become more lenient on immigration reform and more liberal on social policy, or be reduced to permanent minority status. It is possible that analysis is correct. But the swing from Landslide Lyndon to Landslide Reagan serves to remind us there is more than one way to build a winning coalition.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report