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Does GOP Have to Pass Immigration Reform?

By Sean Trende - June 25, 2013

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Nineteen states have moved at least a point toward Democrats, while 25 have moved toward Republicans by a similar amount. If you weight the shift in each state by electoral vote, it actually works out to a slight shift toward Republicans overall.

Now, there is a theoretical maximum for Republicans among whites; sooner or later you run into Madison, Wis., and Ann Arbor, Mich. But we tend to assume that it’s “natural” for Democrats to win huge portions of conservative Hispanics, and almost all conservative blacks. Against this backdrop, it seems a bit touchy to assume that Republicans will max out at around 60 percent of the white vote. This might be the case, but as we’ll discuss next time, it’s entirely possible that as our nation becomes more diverse, our political coalitions will increasingly fracture along racial/ethnic lines rather than ideological ones.

Look at it this way: In 1988, George H.W. Bush, running against a weak opponent in a fantastic environment for the “in party,” won the white vote by 20 points. In 2012, Mitt Romney, running against an incumbent president in what was a neutral-to-slightly-favorable environment for the “in party” by Election Day, accomplished the same thing.

How does a Republican running in a more favorable environment perform today? I don’t see any compelling reason why these trends can’t continue, and why a Republican couldn’t begin to approach Ronald Reagan’s 30-point win with whites from 1984 in a more neutral environment than Reagan enjoyed. It’s not necessarily the most likely scenario, but it strikes me as more likely than a Democrat winning 90 percent of the Hispanic vote.

We’ll come back to this in the future, but for now I’ll just leave you with the following scenario: Let’s assume that immigration reform doesn’t pass, that the Democratic share of African-Americans reverts to 90 percent, that black voter participation drops somewhat, and that white participation picks up a notch. Let’s assume that the GOP share of the white vote continues to improve according to trend, about 1.5 points per year, with a “kicker” of a couple points for our “missing whites” returning in 2016. We’ll cap the Republicans’ share of the white vote at 70 percent.

Let’s also assume that Hispanic and Asian voters gradually react to this by voting increasingly like African-Americans. To accomplish this, we’ll add three points to the Democrats’ share of the Hispanic and Asian votes each cycle.

We might call this the “racial polarization” scenario, and we can model this out using Nate Silver’s handy electoral widget, which includes estimates for population growth over time. Here are the electoral results:

Of course, this chart also assumes a “baseline” environment similar to 2012. In some years, it will be more favorable to the GOP than these demographics suggest, and the GOP will do better. In other years, the baseline will be worse, and the GOP would suffer accordingly. But as you can see, overall the GOP does quite well with this scenario until 2048, when Texas finally goes blue and the bottom drops out (making policy decisions today based on what might happen in 35 years crazy).

This really just illustrates an overlooked point. Democrats liked to mock the GOP as the “Party of White People” after the 2012 elections. But from a purely electoral perspective, that’s not a terrible thing to be. Even with present population projections, there are likely to be a lot of non-Hispanic whites in this country for a very long time. Relatively slight changes among their voting habits can forestall massive changes among the non-white population for a very long while. The very white baby boom generation is just hitting retirement age, and younger whites, while unsurprisingly more Democratic than the baby boomers (who, you may recall, supported George McGovern), still voted for Romney overall.

Tomorrow we’ll talk in more detail about the Hispanic vote, run some more simulations, and conclude, happily, why this hyper-polarized future probably isn’t going to come to pass. 

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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