Why 2012 Is Not the GOP’s “Last Chance”

Sean Trende, Real Clear Politics, March 6, 2012

Jon Chait recently penned a column titled “2012 or Never.” The subtitle, “Why 2012 Is the Republicans’ Last Chance,” pretty well sums up the theme of the piece: If Republicans don’t win this year, they’re doomed. {snip}

Having just authored a book on this subject, I thought it was worth weighing in too. The main problem with Chait’s piece is that it’s not entirely clear what 2012 is the Republicans’ last chance for. The most obvious assumption is that it’s their last chance to win presidential/congressional elections. But Chait dismisses this possibility, noting correctly that the party will adapt, and that external shocks and random events will enable the GOP to win elections in the future.


When Chait does seem to argue for an electoral realignment—again, the piece hedges back-and-forth—he does so by relying on the types of projections of Democratic dominance that have become de rigueur among demographers. As Chait puts it. “[t]he modern GOP—the party of Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes—is staring down its own demographic extinction.”

These demographic projections are overstated. The problems with this type of analysis are many; I spend about 100 pages in my book on them. For our purposes, let’s focus on two problems.

First, straight-line projections are untrustworthy once you get past a certain horizon (arbitrarily, let’s call it 10 years out). As I like to tell people, if I were writing this article in 1924, I would tell you that you could take three things to the bank. First, African-Americans will vote Republican. Second, the South will vote Democratic. Third, the growing northern white ethnic population, which shifted toward parity with Republicans in 1896 and became overwhelmingly Republican in 1920, would soon eradicate northern Democrats. All of these trends would begin to weaken in a decade, would be highly questionable in 30 years, and would look like utter nonsense within 50.

Already, the current narrative regarding Latinos is looking a bit shaky. While the Latino population skyrocketed in the past decade, the Latino share of the electorate has actually been flat. The decrease in the white share of the electorate from 2004 to 2008 was almost entirely attributable to the surge in African-American voters in 2008 from 11 percent of the electorate to 13 percent, something that will likely be difficult for a non-Obama presidential candidate to replicate.

Absent the (largely) Obama-induced surge among African-Americans, whites would have made up 76 percent of the electorate, only one point less than in 2004. At that rate, it will take a very long time for the electorate to become majority non-white.

There are other problems. Latino immigration largely dried up in the late ‘00s, much as European immigration dried up in the ‘30s. Whether it will restart remains to be seen. Latino voters actually tend to vote more heavily Republican as they make more money, suggesting that as this population is increasingly comprised of second- and third-generation Latinos, they will vote more Republican. Indeed, in 2008 Barack Obama won by a similar nationwide margin to Bill Clinton in 1996, but actually ran about 10 points worse among Hispanic voters.

Second, Chait assumes that a Democratic coalition made up of liberal whites, moderate suburbanites, populist white working-class voters, and various minority groups will be a stable one. This seems unlikely. Again, pages of a book could be written about this, but let’s take a simple example.

In Arizona, Jan Brewer seemingly did everything possible to alienate that state’s growing Latino population. And indeed, while John McCain won 41 percent of that population in his home state in 2008, Brewer managed to win only 28 percent in 2010. But her stance on immigration was more popular among whites than McCain’s, and she improved over McCain’ showing with that group by two points. The net result is that even if Latino turnout in 2010 had been as high as it was in 2008, Brewer would have only run a half-point behind McCain.

In short, I’m not really at all certain why Chait believes that as the country becomes more racially diverse and the Democratic Party increasingly becomes a minority-dominated party, that our politics will become less racialized. Instead, if the Democratic Party becomes dominated by Latinos and African-Americans, there’s a good chance that whites will continue to migrate toward the Republican Party. If the GOP continues to win 62 percent of the white vote for Congress, as it did in 2010 for probably the first time since 1928, then it will be a long time before it finds itself unable to win elections.


So while there are plenty of reasons to believe that Chait’s projections might be entirely incorrect, it’s also important to understand what the worst-case scenario for Republicans really is. It’s a future where they will continue to win elections, where Democrats concede many of the policy stances of the Nixon/Reagan years, advance their own agenda pretty gradually, and suffer major setbacks when they are too aggressive. Which, when you come down to it, isn’t a particularly grim future for Republicans at all.


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