What does the future hold for the GOP?

Changing U.S. demographics portend a dark future for Republicans.

Published November 20, 2008 8:10PM (EST)

Since the Democrats' sweeping election victory on November 4th, there has been widespread speculation about the future prospects of the Republican Party on the airwaves and the web.

Some Republicans, like former GOP presidential candidate and Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, have advised the GOP that the only way to return to power is to reemphasize the party's cultural and fiscal conservatism. Other conservatives, like columnist Kathleen Parker, have argued that its cultural conservatism and the GOP's close ties to evangelical Christians that are holding the party back. On November 14th, Salon's Tom Schaller hosted a round table discussion with three leading Republican strategists, during which conservative consultant Alex Castellanos said that though Republicans need to decide in what direction to take the party, the 2008 presidential election showed "it takes a lot to elect a Democratic president in this country." Castellanos pointed to public discontent with the Bush Administration, the economic meltdown, and Barack Obama's centrism as exceptionally unusual factors that lead to Obama's victory. He did not think the party needed to have a massive ideological readjustment to remain viable.

But the U.S.'s changing demographics suggest Castellanos is wrong. In the future, Republicans won't be able to win national elections with the same constituencies they have relied upon in the past. Simply put, the overall U.S. electorate is becoming less conservative, less white, and younger, while Republican voters are getting older, whiter, and more conservative.

According to demographer Cheryl Russell, author of "Bet You Didn't Know: Hundreds of Intriguing Facts about Living in the USA," the U.S. will become a majority minority county by 2050. By then, the Hispanic segment of the population will rise from 15 to 30 percent. The Republican Party's pronounced anti-immigration stance has done little to endear conservatives to Hispanics and this showed markedly at the polls in 2008.

Hispanics are the largest growing minority in the U.S. and made up 9 percent of the electorate this year, their largest share ever. John McCain won only 31 percent of the Hispanic vote. While Hispanics have traditionally favored the Democratic Party, Bush managed to win 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004. But as Alex highlighted in a recent article, in 2008 Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in many crucial states, such as New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada.

"I think the long-term viability [of the GOP] is very poor," Russell said, adding that a "big problem for Republicans is that they don't have any new ideas to offer Americans." But she also said that Republican policies that run contrary to the interests of the nation's burgeoning minority populations are a primary cause of this pessimistic outlook. "Republicans have hitched their wagon to a declining demographic. The older, white, rural, off-line generation."

Alan I. Abramowitz, the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University, concurs with Russell's assessment. "I think it's pretty clear that unless the Republican Party does something to try to reach beyond its current base and increase its appeal to minority voters that its going to be in great difficulty in the future," he said. "Non-whites made up 26 percent of the electorate in this past election, up from 23 percent in 2004 and just five percent in the 1950s." Based on exit polls, McCain received nearly 90 percent of his votes from white voters, while only around 60 percent of Democratic voters were white.

A 2007 report compiled by Tony Fabrizio, who served as the chief pollster to Bob Dole's Presidential campaign and whose firm, Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates, is a respected research and polling organization, found that 93 percent of Republicans are white and that the percentage of Republicans aged 55 or older has increased from 28 percent in 1997 to 41 percent in 2007.

Republicans also did especially poorly with America's young voters in 2008. 66 percent of the so-called millennial generation, those Americans in the 18 to 29 age bracket, opted for Obama. "That's the biggest margin we've seen for a candidate from either party for as long as I've seen data," Abramowitz said. "And that stands out, because the younger generation were much more democratic than the rest of the electorate. McCain actually would have won the election among voters aged 40 years and older."

Russell attributed Obama's success with younger voters partially to the campaign's superior Internet proficiency. "[In 2008], the Internet for the first time determined the winner and Obama was the Internet president. The Republicans did not connect with that Internet generation and I'm not even sure they get it yet. They really lost that generation and often if you lose people in their 20s, you never get them back." According to Russell, millennials are also the most unabashedly liberal generation ever and don't agree with many of the conservative positions on wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage.

Millennials are also exceedingly liberal on economic and national security issues as well. Millennials favor diplomacy over military intervention and support the government playing a dominant role in addressing environment problems.

Meanwhile, Republicans are becoming less moderate. A Pew Research Center poll from November 13th, found that 60 percent of Republicans want the GOP to move in a more conservative direction ideologically. By contrast, the same poll found that 57 percent of Democrats want liberals to move in a more moderate direction. Fabrizio's report reinforced these results, showing that the percentage of Republicans self-identifying themselves as conservatives increased 16 points from 1997 to 2007, up to 71 percent of the party's members.

Abramowitz sees this lack of ideological moderation as a key dilemma for Republicans. "[The GOP] base is shrinking and they've been able to make up for that by increasing their level of support among that segment of the electorate that supports them - the married, white and religious voters. But now, they've sort of maxed out with that group," he said.

So what are the GOP's best hope for a revival now? Abramowitz thinks they have to depend on Democratic ineptitude. "The good news for the Republicans is that sooner or later as the governing party now, the Democrats are going to mess up. So you can always hope that once they mess up, you're still there," he said. "The Republicans aren't going to disappear but they are in danger of becoming irrelevant."

By Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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