Posted on November 22, 2011

The White Party

Thomas B. Edsall, New York Times, November 21, 2011

In the wake of the 2008 election, conservative Republican strategists like Karl Rove, Grover Norquist and William Kristol warned that their party faced even worse defeats if it continued in its anti-immigrant posturing.

“An anti-Hispanic attitude is suicidal,” Rove wrote. The decision to “demagogue” the immigration issue was a “totally self-inflicted wound by House Republicans,” Kristol declared. Beating up on immigrants,” Grover Norquist said, “loses you votes.”

Their advice was rejected. Republicans running for the House and the Senate defiantly calculated that they could win in 2010 with a surge of white voters, affirming the Republican role as the default party of white America. Initially, this approach appeared quixotic. A demographic tidal wave of African-American and Hispanic voters threatened to wash the Republicans out to sea.

But many Republican candidates–incumbents and challengers–did not budge. They not only held firm in their adamant opposition to immigration reform (despite its crucial importance to many Hispanic voters), but they also became even more hard-nosed. Former apostates on the issue, like Senator John McCain of Arizona, who had proudly backed immigration reform in 2004 and 2005, saw the light–in other words, read poll data on Republican voters–and moved to the right.


The decision to carry the banner for conservative white America paid off in the midterm elections–helped enormously, of course, by a dismal economy under a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress, as well as conservative hostility to the administration’s health care program and economic stimulus legislation.

{snip} But the scope of success went far beyond expectations.

The percentage of non-Hispanic whites voting for Republican House candidates in 2010, 62 percent, set a record for off-year contests, beating even the 1994 Republican rout when Republicans got 58 percent of the white vote. {snip}

Another way of looking at it is this: fully 88.8 percent of all ballots cast in 2010 for House Republicans were cast by whites, compared to 63.9 percent for Democrats.


In the Jan. 19, 2008, South Carolina primary, 96 percent of the Republican turnout was white, 2 percent black, 1 percent Latino and 1 percent other. The population of the state is 64.1 percent white, 27.9 percent black and 5.1 percent Hispanic.

Now, moving toward what has all the markings of a historic ideological and demographic collision on Nov. 6, 2012, Republicans are doubling down on this racially fraught strategy.

While the subject of race and of the overwhelmingly white Republican primary electorate are never explicitly discussed by Republican candidates, the issue is subsumed in blatant anti-immigration rhetoric. As Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, learned the hard way, voicing sympathy for the plight of the undocumented is a sure way to lose ground.


The major threat to the Republican “white” strategy is a revival of the high turnout among minorities that carried Democrats to victory in 2008. {snip}


With less than a year to go until the election, poll data suggest that the Republican “white” strategy has a chance of working. Since 2008, the Republican Party’s biggest gains, and Obama’s sharpest declines, have been among white voters.


The non-partisan Pew Research Center reported in July that measurements of partisan identification showed increasing Republican margins among white voters. In 2008, 46 percent of whites said they were Republicans or generally voted for Republicans, and 44 percent were Democrats, a virtual tie. By the summer of 2011, however, the Republican advantage had grown to 52-39.

The shift, Pew noted, was “particularly pronounced among the young and poor.” Whites under 30 in 2008 favored Democrats by seven points, but by mid-2011 gave the Republican party an 11 point edge, a substantial 18 point shift. Similarly, whites with incomes under $30,000 had favored Democrats by 15 points in 2008, but in 2011 tilted Republican by four points, a 19 point shift.