Indefatigable commenter ConservativeCabbie argues:
No doubt someone will report on the latest WaPo poll which shows Republican ID at 21% and use it as evidences of the GOP's terminal decline. The only thing I would say to this... is that in the most recent important poll, the election, the GOP still won 47% of the vote. And that was with decidedly unpropitious circumstances. I agree that the GOP are on the ropes. But isn't that a fact when it comes to parties falling out of power - that they move towards their more extreme base before moving back to the middle. That's what happened to post-Carter Democrats, post-Callaghan Labour and post-Thatcher/Major Tories. I would suggest that this process is even more pronounced in America due to the lack of a party leader.
Now, CC has a point in saying that many defeated parties, pruned of some of their more moderate members, have a tendency to swing towards the base in the immediate aftermath of electoral fiasco and that, in time, the consequences of such a move eventually become clear to all but the most bone-headed true believers. But it matters how quickly this process happens too.
Consider that in 1997 13.5m Britons voted for Tony Blair's Labour Party. By 2005 the number of voters prepared to vote for a third Labour term had fallen to around 9m. Despite losing more than four million votes, Labour was able to win yet another decisive victory. And they were able to do so, in part at least, because the Tories hadn't done enough to deserve a fresh* go at governing themselves.
Now, of course, there are always plenty of issues involved in these things and elections resist succumbing to simple or sweeping conclusions, but the fact remains that a governing party can sustain enormus losses provided, that is, the opposition remain divided, absurd, adrift or clueless.
Factor in the longer-term realities of American society and the prognosis for the GOP is worse than today's terrible numbers might suggest. One of the simplest, yet most important truths concerning American politics is that, As Matters Currently Stand**, voters who were more likely than not Republicans die every day and are replaced on the electoral register by new voters who will, more likely than not, be Democrats.
Granted, young voters are less likely to turn-out and vote, but then again fewer and fewer of the GOP's pensioner brigades will be voting either.
*Tories who think that "if only votes in the marginals had gone the other way then we'd have won" are deluding themselves, just as John Kerry kidded himself that he won "apart from a couple of hundred thousand votes in Ohio". In a two party system - despite the transatlantic differences - thin margins can still be decisive victories. The question is, when do you need to break-up the team and rebuild? I'd say the GOP is at that stage now.
**As Matters Currently Stand is obviously the vital phrase. They may change. They have before! But the GOP probably needs to give voters a reason to consider them again. There'd have been nothing wrong with a period of reflective silence from the GOP these past four or five months, but that's not what we've seen is it? AMCS...
UPDATE: See Anna Greenberg's Daily Beast piece for more numbers that underline a) the difficulty the GOP faces and b) the extent of the opportunity Obama has.