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Demographics and the GOP

At a recent lunch, several friends and I discussed the future of the Republican Party. I argued that the challenges facing the Republican Party, at least at the presidential level, are significant and fairly fundamental. 

After our conversation, I cobbled together some data that underscore my concern–data based on previously published works, including an essay in COMMENTARY I co-authored with Michael Gerson, articles by Jeffrey Bell in the Weekly Standard and Ron Brownstein in National Journal, an essay by my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Henry Olsen in National Affairs, and portions of the book Double Down by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Below are the data points along with links to the sources (note: the paragraphs are taken from the original sources, in some cases with very minor changes for the purposes of clarification). Readers might find this of interest.

Barack Obama v. Mitt Romney

  • In the 2012 presidential election, Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney by 126 electoral votes (332 to Romney’s 206) and won the popular vote by nearly 5 million. 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. He did this despite losing white voters by a larger margin than any winning presidential candidate in American history.
  • Of the 12 “battleground” states, Obama won 11—eight of them by a margin of more than 5 percentage points. Remarkably, this meant that if there had been a uniform 5 point swing toward the Republicans in the national popular vote margin—that is, had Romney won the popular vote by 1.1 percentage points instead of losing it by 3.9—Obama would still have prevailed in the Electoral College, winning 23 states and 272 electoral votes. (Source: Jeffrey Bell)
  • Neil Newhouse, Mitt Romney’s pollster, ran through the exit poll data, explaining that Chicago had dramatically pulled off its coalition-of-the-ascendant play–turning out an electorate even more diverse than in 2008, not less, as Newhouse assumed would be the case. Nationally, the white vote fell from 74 to 72 percent, while the black proportion held stead 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. Obama’s share of each of those blocs ranged from commanding to overwhelming: 93 percent of African Americans, 71 percent of Latinos, 55 percent of women (and 67 percent of unmarried women), and 60 percent of young voters. (Source: Mark Halperin and John Heilemann)
  • 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

Historic/Demographic Trends

  • 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)
  • 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)
  • White voters, who traditionally and reliably favor the GOP, have gone from 89 percent of the electorate in 1976 to 72 percent in 2012. (This decline is partially an artifact of a change in the way the Census Bureau classifies Hispanics, who used to be counted among whites before being placed in a separate category.) Mitt Romney carried the white vote by 20 points. If the country’s demographic composition were still the same in 2012 as it was in 2000, he 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)
  • The 2012 election was clearly decided by the non-white vote for the first time in American history. About 72 percent of the electorate in the 2012 election was white, according to the exit poll. Romney carried the white vote 59 percent to 39 percent, a 20-point lead and the fourth highest for a Republican since the advent of exit polling. No presidential candidate in American history had ever carried 59 percent of the white vote and lost. Yet Romney lost the election by four points because he lost the non-white vote by 63 points. (Source: Henry Olsen)
  • 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). With minorities expected to make up a majority of America’s 18 and younger population in this decade, all signs point toward a continued decline in the white share of the eligible voter population—which suggests the GOP would have to marshal heroic turnout efforts to avoid further decline in the white vote share. If the electorate’s composition follows the trend over the past two decades, minorities would likely constitute 30 percent of the vote in 2016. (Source: Ron Brownstein
  • 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)
  • 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)
  • 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)

My purpose with this post is to present the empirical data, not to interpret it, except to say this: 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. Republicans, at least when it comes to presidential elections, have a winning message for an electorate that no longer exists.

For the GOP to revivify itself and enlarge its appeal, Republicans at every level will have to think creatively even as they remain within the boundaries of their core principles. It isn’t an easy task, but it’s certainly not an impossible one. (Bill Clinton did this for the Democratic Party in 1992 and Tony Blair did this for the Labour Party in 1997.) It would of course help if those speaking for the party were themselves irenic rather than angry, inviting rather than off-putting, individuals of conviction who also possess the gift of persuasion and a certain grace. “You know what charm is,” Albert Camus wrote in The Fall, “a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question.”

Whether Republicans understand the nature of the challenges they face–and if they do how they intend to deal with them and who will emerge from their ranks to lead them–will go a long way toward determining the future of their party and their country.