Republican Party of Whites?
A Gallup poll released yesterday finds that, “More than 6 in 10 Republicans today are white conservatives, while most of the rest are whites with other ideological leanings; only 11% of Republicans are Hispanics, or are blacks or members of other races. By contrast, only 12% of Democrats are white conservatives, while about half are white moderates or liberals and a third are nonwhite.”
This is pretty stark but, as Nate Silver points out, “not exactly anything new.”
88 percent of George W. Bush’s voters in 2004, and 91 percent of them in 2000, were white. And nearly 98 percent of Ronald Reagan’s voters in 1980 were white as were 96 percent of Gerald Ford’s in 1976. The GOP is, in fact, slightly less white than it once was, as they do relatively better among Hispanics and Asians than among blacks (if still not particularly well), and Hispanics and Asians are starting to make up a larger fraction of the nonwhite (and overall) voting pool.
The Democrats, however, are becoming less white at a much faster rate than the Republicans. Whereas 85 percent of their votes were from white voters in 1976, the number was just 60 percent last November. This is, of course, a helpful characteristic, since the nonwhite share of the electorate, just 11 percent in 1976 and 1980, represented more than a quarter of the turnout in November.
Consider this remarkable statistic. In 1980, 32 percent of the electorate consisted of white Democrats (or at least white Carter voters) — likewise, in 2008, 32 percent of the electorate consisted of white Obama voters. But whereas, in 1980, just 9 percent of the electorate were nonwhite Carter voters, 21 percent of the electorate were nonwhite Obama voters last year. Thus, Carter went down to a landslide defeat, whereas Obama defeated John McCain by a healthy margin.
He wonders if this isn’t the Southern Strategy coming home to roost. One might counter that the Democrats have answered with a racially and culturally divisive strategy of their own, which accounts for their declining percentage of the white vote concomitant with their gains among minorities. But, from the standpoint of winning elections, that’s probably a smarter strategy.
It’s going to be increasingly difficult in the future for Republicans to win nationwide appealing only to whites. The party has long written off black voters, who tend to vote as a bloc, but can’t afford to also write off Hispanics; together, they comprise more than a quarter of the population — and growing.
Eleven years ago this month, Atlantic Monthly published a brilliant essay by Christopher Caldwell entitled “The Southern Captivity of the GOP.” It detailed how the party went from the 1994 “Revolution” that swept up both Houses of Congress to getting crushed in the 1996 presidential election and was on its way to a midterm setback in 1998. A big part of that was losing the Hispanics.
Democrats who had arrogantly assumed that standard-issue minority politics would easily pull Hispanics into the party fold were proved wrong throughout the 1980s. Hispanic voters turned out to be disproportionately entrepreneurial and disproportionately receptive to Republican family-values rhetoric, and gave the party roughly a third of their votes in the three presidential elections from 1980 to 1988. Leaving aside Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in New York, who do fit the Democrats’ minority paradigm, the Republicans were doing better with the Hispanic vote than might be expected.
But the Republicans in the 104th Congress tried to shore up their Texas and California right wings with hostile rhetoric on immigration. They passed legislation that sought to deprive not just illegal but also legal immigrants of federal benefits. (Newt Gingrich and other Republicans backpedaled in 1997, reversing some of the measures, but the damage was done.) And California’s Proposition 187, supported by Republican Governor Pete Wilson and aimed at denying benefits to illegal immigrants, brought angry Hispanics to the polls in unprecedented numbers. Clinton took 72 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide, including 81 percent in Arizona and 75 percent in California; he took 78 percent of Hispanics under thirty. He nearly split the Hispanic vote even in Florida, where 97 percent of the Cuban population voted for Reagan in 1984.
Recall that, prior to Clinton’s win in 1992, California‘s massive electoral vote block had been a “lock” for Republicans. Since 1996, Republicans haven’t even bothered to contest it in presidential elections. And Florida has gone from a pretty solid Republican state to an intense battleground. Beyond that,
As southern control over the Republican agenda grows, the party alienates even conservative voters in other regions. The prevalence of right-to-work laws in southern states may be depriving Republicans of the socially conservative midwestern trade unionists whom they managed to split in the Reagan years, and sending Reagan Democrats back to their ancestral party in the process. Anti-government sentiment makes little sense in New England, where government, as even those who hate it will concede, is neither remote nor unresponsive.
Of course, while the GOP did lose seats in 1998, costing Gingrich his job, it rallied to win the presidency (although not the plurality of votes for president) in 2000 and again in 2008. But it’s lost congressional seats in every single election since, losing its majority in both Houses in 2006 and becoming a decided minority in 2008.
Granting that there was a perfect storm working for the Democrats in 2008 — an unpopular Republican incumbent, an unexciting Republican ticket, two unpopular wars, a collapsing economy, and a charismatic Democratic candidate with a compelling backstory — the Republicans lost states that it had theretofore been thought theirs in perpetuity.
Demographics isn’t destiny and this trend therefore isn’t set in stone. But the Republican Party will need to drastically change the inertia if it wishes to be other than a regional party in the coming years.