Posted on July 8, 2013

Should Republicans Just Focus on White Voters?

Thomas B. Edsall, New York Times, July 3, 2013

For two decades, from 1972 to 1992, the Democratic Party agonized over its loss of support among whites, especially those in the working class. Over the next two decades, from the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 to the re-election of Barack Obama in 2012, the party slowly came to terms with its loss and learned how to win the presidency with a minority of white voters.

Now the white vote has become a Republican problem. White voters cast 72 percent of all votes in the Obama-Romney election of 2012 compared to 87 percent in the Nixon-McGovern contest in 1972. Should the Republican Party accept the fact that the white majority in the United States is getting smaller or should it bet on boosting Republican margins and turnout rates among whites to record levels?


{snip} Pat Buchanan wrote in the American Conservative on June 14:

In political terms, this is depressing news for the Republican Party. For nearly 90 percent of all Republican votes in presidential elections are provided by Americans of European descent. In 1960 white folks were close to 90 percent of the entire U.S. population and 95 percent of the electorate. Nixon’s New Majority was created by pulling Northern Catholic ethnics and Southern conservative Protestants, white folks all, out of the Roosevelt coalition and bringing them into a new alliance that would give Nixon a 49-state landslide in 1972, which Reagan would replicate in 1984.

Buchanan continued:

What are the Republicans doing? Going back on their word, dishonoring their platform and enraging their loyal supporters, who gave Mitt 90 percent of his votes, to pander to a segment of the electorate that gave Mitt less than 5 percent of his total votes? Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.


Sean Trende, the senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics, who has written a four-part series that seeks to broadly address the problems and alternative choices facing the Republican Party;

Timothy Carney, a columnist for the Washington Examiner, who makes the case for an anti-elite Republican Party, a “free-market populism and a Republican Party that fights against all forms of political privilege — a party that champions all who want to work and take risks in order to improve their lives and raise a family”;

And Karl Rove, the Republican strategist who needs no introduction, argues in the Wall Street Journal that “the nonwhite share of the vote will keep growing” and that if “the G.O.P. leaves nonwhite voters to the Democrats, then its margins in safe congressional districts and red states will dwindle — not overnight, but over years and decades.”

Trende provides the most detailed analysis. He is in fundamental disagreement with political thinkers who posit that demography is destiny, that the steady decline in the white share of the electorate, combined with the rising share made up of Hispanics and Asian-Americans, assures a secure Democratic majority in the foreseeable future. The demographic inevitability argument was most fully developed in the book “The Emerging Democratic Majority” byJohn B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira.

Trende countered the Judis-Teixeira thesis in an email to the Times:

You can’t establish long-lasting majority coalitions in America. Part of this is because parties adapt. You can already begin to see this starting with the G.O.P. on marriage equality, which will probably have a pro-gay marriage nominee at some point in the mid-2020s and might have a pro-civil unions nominee in 2016. The simple truth is that “coalitions of everyone” inevitably fall apart, quickly. You can see the reasons why in the immigration debate itself, where, even if we’re only being reluctantly honest, the interests of some core Democratic and Republican coalition groups are at loggerheads with one another (Hispanics vs. working class whites and blacks; upscale whites vs. downscale whites).

Trende explores different future scenarios for the Republican Party: these range from a “racial polarization” strategy at one extreme to an all-out effort by the Republican Party to win Hispanic and Asian support at the other.

Trende takes each scenario and describes what Republicans would have to achieve, in terms of vote margins among major constituencies, to remain competitive in presidential contests.


Trende’s most controversial assertion is that from a purely tactical point of view, Republican dependence on whites is not necessarily a liability, despite the decline in the white share of the electorate:

Democrats liked to mock the G.O.P. as the ‘Party of White People’ after the 2012 elections. But from a purely electoral perspective, that’s not a terrible thing to be.

The core of Trende’s case for his “racial polarization” scenario, as he makes it on RealClearPolitics, is his analysis showing a 6.1 million drop in the white vote from 2008 to 2012. Trende draws his data from the Census, exit polls and county-by-county election results.

By Trende’s calculation, voters who failed to turn out in 2012 were disproportionately Republican-leaning, “largely downscale, Northern, rural whites.” If all 6.1 million had cast ballots in 2012, it would not have been enough for Romney to win, but the election would have been much closer.


Carney advocates another alternative, a hybrid of the populism advocated by Huey Long and Teddy Roosevelt:

Republicans need a new coalition and a new message. The heart of that coalition should be the working class. The message should be populism.

Carney expects that Republican efforts to build more substantial margins among well-educated affluent whites will fail:

Upscale white suburbs have steadily trended Democratic. Montgomery County, Maryland, was one of the first. Westchester, New York, and the North Shore of Chicago followed. Philadelphia’s white-collar counties and Northern Virginia soon joined the club. In 2008, Obama made huge gains in the suburbs, pulling in 60 percent in Fairfax County, for instance, and winning the vote of those voters earning over $100,000, according to exit polls.

Carney writes that in 2012, “Republicans couldn’t have picked a candidate better suited for highly educated, upper-middle-class suburban voters. Romney was successful, risk-averse, smart and non-ideological,” but his “suburban strategy fizzled.”

These setbacks suggest that it “is time to give up on building majorities on a suburban foundation.” Instead, the Republican Party, in Carney’s view,

needs to play to the disaffected. The disaffected are not the wealthy, an obvious point that conservatives can’t seem to understand. The wealthy got wealthier under Obama, and corporations earned record profits while median family earnings fell. Obama uses these facts to defuse the charges he’s a socialist. Republicans should use them to show that Obama’s big government expands the privileges of the privileged class.

Carney’s views are shared, at least in part, by a wing of conservatism that includes my colleague Ross Douthat, who, along with Reihan Salam, a contributing editor at National Review, in 2005 proposed a “downscale” or “Sam’s Club” Republican strategy in The Weekly Standard, an argument which they elaborated upon in a 2008 book “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.”

Carney’s proposal would require an upheaval of the Republican hierarchy. Currently, the party has substantial support from the white working class, but its agenda, particularly its economic agenda, is set by an elite with century-old ties to corporate America. At the policy-making level, the Republican Party has represented the interests of society’s winners, not its losers.

This brings us to Rove, the most prominent of the three strategists under discussion. Rove planned to use the two-term presidency of George W. Bush to entrench a sustained Republican majority. Rove is an advocate of a version of Trende’s “full Rubio” strategy, as witnessed by Rove’s oversight of Bush’s success in winning over 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004.


Rove cited some dramatic statistics to argue that the Republican Party disregards Hispanics at its peril:

The Hispanic population in Georgia’s Gwinnett County increased by 153% from 2000 to 2010, while the GOP’s presidential vote in the county dropped to 54% in 2012 from 63.7% in 2000. In Henry County, south of Atlanta, the Hispanic population increased by 339% over the same decade. The GOP’s presidential vote dropped to 51.2% in 2012 from 66.4% in 2000.

Rove’s solution is less a coherent strategy than a call to arms: “Republicans must now do two things: turn out more white voters and improve their performance among Hispanics, African-Americans and Asian-Americans.” In other words, the Republican Party must be all things to all men.

In an email, Trende described his own strategic preferences to me as a moderate effort to reach out to Hispanics, combined with a degree of focus on low and middle income earners:

To the extent I have suggestions, they were for more economic populism. These include a lot of changes Democrats would presumably enjoy; jettisoning the upscale, Club-for-Growth-style conservatism that characterized the Romney campaign for something authentically more geared toward downscale voters.

Right now, the Republican Party is caught in a vise: it is dependent on support from a diminishing but still powerful constituency of socially, culturally and morally conservative whites from across the economic spectrum, many of whom oppose gay rights and immigration reform. But the party must also deal with two ascendant constituencies: culturally tolerant — indeed, permissive — young and suburban voters of all races, along with Hispanic voters who place a priority on immigration reform that gives undocumented aliens a path to citizenship.


These dilemmas are characteristic of a party undergoing a seismic transformation. The Republican Party will likely replicate the experience of the Democratic Party in the 1970s and 1980s, changing only after repeated rejection of the party’s presidential nominees. There is too much at stake for key players in the Republican coalition to allow the party to fail to adapt. The question is, how long will it have to suffer the humiliation of defeat before it begins the process in earnest?