Will Demographics Really Destroy GOP?

Will Demographics Really Destroy GOP?
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Last week, Peter Wehner wrote a piece in Commentary magazine laying out a collection of data regarding recent elections and demographic trends.  He was mostly content to let the data speak for themselves, save for a codicil to the piece arguing that something had to change: “Republican problems are not superficial, transient, or cyclical. The trends speak for themselves. The GOP therefore needs to articulate a governing vision and develop a governing agenda that can reach groups that have not traditionally been supportive of it.” His ultimate takeaway is that the GOP needs to substantially revise its platform, and make a move similar to that made by the New Democrats in 1992.

Anyone familiar with my writings knows I’m skeptical about such claims and the efficacy of such moves. While I’m not a pure economic determinist, I do think that elections are largely about fundamentals, such as the economy and the course of wars. Put differently, if Democrats had instead nominated Bill Clinton in 1988 and Michael Dukakis in 1992, we’d probably think of the New Democrats as failures and believe that ol’ time liberal religion represented the future of the Democratic Party.

This isn’t to say I’m unsympathetic with some of the goals that Wehner and other analysts urge the GOP to pursue -- both in terms of specific programs and broader issues of inclusivity and outreach.

But while I think it might well be the case that the GOP should adopt some changes, that doesn’t lead to the conclusion that they must. Put differently, I think the sorts of programs that reformers within the party advocate might be good ends in themselves.  I just think the case is sorely lacking that they are necessary means for achieving the broader end of winning elections.

With that background, here are the datapoints that Peter Wehner sets forth.  After each one, I’ve put forth competing data that could support a different conclusion. Again, I don’t intend this as a fisking or an attack on Wehner, who is one of the most thoughtful analysts out there. But he presents a pretty good summary of the arguments for change, which presents a unique opportunity for a summary of the responses to those arguments.

•           Mr. Obama is the first president to achieve the 51 percent mark in two elections since President Eisenhower and the first Democrat to do so since Franklin Roosevelt.

This has more to do with President Obama’s ability to avoid a third party challenge than anything else.  If George Wallace hadn’t run in 1968, Nixon would have accomplished this feat.  If John Anderson hadn’t run in 1980, Ronald Reagan would have accomplished it.  If Ross Perot hadn’t run again in 1996, Bill Clinton would have accomplished it. If Ralph Nader hadn’t run in 2000, well, Al Gore might have accomplished it.

We can also make a similar observation, but from a different direction: Obama is the first president in history re-elected with a smaller share of the electoral college, a smaller share of the popular vote, and fewer popular votes.  In other words, he’s the only two-term president to see his coalition shrink between his first and second elections. For that matter, 2012 was only the third time since the 1800s that a party saw its electoral coalition contract after holding the White House for a single term.  If we instead choose to ascribe importance to those tidbits, we might draw some pretty different conclusions about 2012.

•           Of the 12 “battleground” states, Obama won 11 -- eight of them by a margin of more than 5 percentage points. [If] there had been a uniform 5-point swing toward the Republicans in the national popular vote margin . . . Obama would still have prevailed in the Electoral College, winning 23 states and 272 electoral votes. (Source: Jeffrey Bell)

I’m not sure what this can tell us about Republican messaging.  Republicans lost by four points, so it would be unusual if they split the battleground states evenly. The fact that electoral vote 270 was 1.1 points more Democratic than the country as a whole is historically unusual and potentially problematic for Republicans, but that would seem to argue more for better get-out-the-vote operations than a message change (after all, you can win with 80 percent of the vote and still have electoral vote 270 be substantially more Democratic than the country as a whole).

•           [From 2008 to 2012] the white vote fell from 74 to 72 percent, while the black proportion held steady at 13. Participation among Hispanics rose from 8 to 10 percent, among women from 53 to 54 percent, and among young voters from 18 to 19 percent.

If this had been accompanied by an increase in the popular vote, it would be more worrisome for Republicans.  I’ve written at length on this, but the only way that whites drop as a share of the electorate while the total popular vote is also falling is if a large number of white voters who voted in 2008 didn’t vote in 2012.

•           In 2012 the minority share of the vote rose to 28 percent, 2 percentage points above 2008 and more than double the 12 percent level for Bill Clinton’s first victory in 1992. (Source: Ron Brownstein)

 But take the next step here.  The minority vote share, which we all agree is overwhelmingly Democratic, doubled from 1992, yet Obama’s share of the popular vote was smaller than Clinton’s.  There is really only one explanation for this: There has been an offsetting movement among whites.  How much farther will that vote shift? I’ll obviously concede that at some point you run out of white people, and there’s a theoretical maximum to the share of the white vote that Republicans can win.  But where is it? 60 percent? 65 percent? 70 percent? Remember, an analyst in 1960 would probably safely assume that Republicans could always bank on at least 30 percent of the black vote. Such projections are often infused with a lack of sufficient imagination.

•           In the last two decades of Democratic dominance, 18 states and the District of Columbia have voted Democratic six out of six times. These currently have 242 electoral votes, which is quite close to the 270 needed to win the presidency. There are 13 states that have voted Republican in every election since 1992, but they total just 102 electoral votes. (Source: Jeffrey Bell)

This is known as the “big blue wall” theory.  But we don’t have a raft of states that have suddenly become much more Democratic.  Since 1992, eight states with 89 electoral votes have moved more than five points toward Democrats (relative to the popular vote) while 12 states with 84 electoral votes have moved more than five points toward Republicans.

What has happened is that a more or less stable electoral map has bobbed up and down with electoral fortunes.  In a really bad Republican year, states like North Carolina and Missouri are competitive.  In a decent Republican year, states like Colorado and New Hampshire flip toward the GOP.

So the question is, why hasn’t there been a good Republican year overall in a while?

•           Out of the last six presidential elections, four have gone to the Democratic nominee, at an average yield of 327 electoral votes to 210 for the Republican. During the preceding two decades, from 1968 to 1988, Republicans won five out of six elections, averaging 417 electoral votes to the Democrats’ 113. In three of those contests, the Democrats failed to muster even 50 electoral votes. (Source: Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner)

So what changed? I provided the answer here:

The truth is, from 1968 through 1988, Republicans had some pretty good luck with the playing fields. They won a close election in 1968 that the economic fundamentals suggested could have gone either way, and lost a close election that could have gone either way in 1976, but the rest of the elections would have been significant surprises had they turned out any differently. … From 1992 through 2012, Republicans barely won one election (in 2000) in an environment where they really didn’t have any business being competitive in the first place. They have split the elections that could have gone either way. Otherwise, they’ve had the misfortune of running in some pretty lousy environments.

Think of it this way: Which presidential election was held in a favorable enough environment for Republicans to win in states that lean toward the Democrats, such as Pennsylvania?  Certainly not 1992 or 2008, where just about everything that could conceivably go wrong for Republicans did. Not 1996, which was a great environment for Democrats.  It was a miracle Pennsylvania was so competitive in 2000 given the national environment (and even then it was probably only so close due to Nader’s presence on the ballot).  We’re left with 2004 and 2012, two years that were pretty close to neutral. 


Even a neutral year isn’t good enough for a Republican to win in these states.  But if a Democrat were to preside over a year like 2008, or if a Republican were to run for re-election in a year like 1996, that big blue wall would prove as solid as the walls of Jericho.

•           If the country’s demographic composition were still the same in 2012 as it was in 2000, Romney would now be president. If it were still the same as it was in 1992, he would have won in a rout. (Source: Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner)

But the Democrats would have run a different campaign, emphasizing their working-class credentials more. Again, even with the huge increase in the minority population, Obama won a smaller share of the vote than Clinton did in 1992. These movements have, at least so far, cancelled each other out.

•           From 1996 to 2012, according to census figures, the white share of the eligible voting population (citizens who are older than 18) has dropped about 2 percentage points every four years, from 79.2 percent to 71.1 percent; over that same period, whites have declined as a share of actual voters from 83 percent to 74 percent (according to census figures) or even 72 percent (according to the exit polls).

These things aren’t entirely one-way ratchets. Note that this trend dates from 1996. The white share of the electorate actually increased in 1992, bucking a similarly lengthy trend beforehand. One of the large outstanding questions is whether Democrats can maintain African-Americans as 13 percent of the electorate and giving 93 percent of their votes to the Democrat without Obama atop the ticket.  I could argue this either way, but there’s a reasonable chance the white share of the electorate will either be flat or increase in 2016.

•           If minorities reach 30 percent of the vote next time, and the 2016 Democratic nominee again attracts support from roughly 80 percent of them, he or she would need to capture only 37 percent of whites to win a majority of the popular vote. In that scenario, to win a national majority, the GOP would need almost 63 percent of whites. Since 1976, the only Republican who has reached even 60 percent among whites was Reagan (with his 64 percent in 1984). Since Reagan’s peak, the Democratic share of the white vote has varied only between 39 percent (Obama in 2012 and Clinton in the three-way election of 1992), and 43 percent (Obama in 2008 and Clinton in 1996). (Source: Ron Brownstein)

But again, you can’t compare elections without comparing the playing fields. In 1984, Reagan was running with 7 percent growth at his back.  In 1988, George H.W. Bush, running in a good environment with solid growth, won 59 percent of the white vote.  In 2012, running in a mediocre-to-unfavorable environment, Mitt Romney won 59 percent of the white vote.  In other words, a Republican running  in a mediocre year performs about as well with whites as a Republican used to perform running in a great Republican year. If a Republican president were running with 7 percent growth at his or her back, I’m fairly certain he or she would eclipse Reagan’s 1984 mark.

•           In 2016, if there is not a dramatic reduction in African-American turnout, a Republican presidential candidate will need to get 60 percent of the white vote, plus a record-high share among each portion of the non-white vote (African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and others) to win a bare 50.1 percent of the vote. (Source: Henry Olsen)

The caveat about African-American turnout is important, since it is by no means certain that a white candidate can generate the same degree of enthusiasm among intermittent African-American voters as did Barack Obama. We’ve covered the main point multiple times already, but there’s another important point hidden here: Hispanics are much less important in terms of the Electoral College than they are in terms of the popular vote.  This is because Hispanics are heavily concentrated in the South and West.

Look at it this way.  Let’s steadily increase the Democrats’ share of the Hispanic vote across the board from 2012, leaving everything else untouched. At 78 percent nationally, North Carolina flips. It isn’t until 86 percent that Arizona flips. At 98 percent nationally, Texas finally flips.

But what about the upside for the GOP? If the GOP reduces the Democrats’ share of the Hispanic vote to 67 percent, Florida goes Republican. At 56 percent, New Mexico flips. Nevada and Colorado flip at 51 percent and 50 percent, respectively. Incidentally, Mitt Romney is still losing the Electoral College, 283 to 255. It isn’t until the Republicans win 63 percent of the Hispanic vote that Pennsylvania finally flips, handing Romney the presidency. 

There are very good reasons to pursue the Hispanic vote from both moral and policy perspectives, and of course every vote does help. But from a cold electoral calculus, the Democrats’ gains among Hispanics at this point yield very little fruit. In fact, if the Democrats were to increase their vote share among Hispanics somehow by another 10 percent, Republicans could nevertheless win the presidency by increasing their share among whites by just four points. 

If you think this is a long shot, consider: If Republicans increase their vote share among Hispanics by 10 points, they would still have to increase their share of the white vote by two points in order to win.

•           Every Democratic nominee since 1980 has run better among single than married whites. In 1984, married couples represented 70 percent of all white voters; by 2012, that number slipped to 65 percent. (The decline has been especially sharp among married white men, who have voted more Republican than married women in each election since 1984.) Another trend steepening the grade for the GOP is growing secularization. Since 2000, Democrats have averaged a 32-point advantage among whites who identify with no religious tradition, and the share of them has increased from 15 percent in 2007 to 20 percent by 2012, according to studies by the Pew Research Center. (Source: Ron Brownstein)

And yet, Republicans’ showings among whites continue to improve over time. In 2010, Republicans won the highest share of the white vote for any major party in House elections since 1822.  They’re doing something correct.

Let’s also recall that, according to the exit polling, Romney/Ryan outpaced Obama/Biden on the most important policy questions: Whom do you trust to handle the economy/the deficit? This was true despite demographic changes.

I think in the end this analysis misses the forest for some of the trees.  The GOP currently has some of the largest shares of Congress, governorships, and state legislatures that it has had in recent history. Demographic changes did not prevent Democrats from suffering the worst midterm election in 80 years in 2010, and most signs suggest another bad year is in the offing.  This simply isn’t consistent with the “demographic doom” storyline.  As John Sides wryly noted, realignments don’t take midterm elections off.

Ultimately, our elections still follow the same fundamentals that they have always followed. Parties that produce peace and prosperity win elections. Those that do not lose elections. If Democrats produce growth and keep us out of wars before 2016, they will more likely than not win another term.  If they do not, they will lose, demographics aside.

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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