The GOP's bleak demographic destiny: How to win the White House when all your voters are dying

Republicans have two paths to overcoming their 2016 demographic troubles: Naked resentment or outright deception

Published December 24, 2015 1:00PM (EST)

Ted Cruz, Donald Trump   (AP/Jose Luis Magana/Reuters/Brian Snyder/Photo montage by Salon)
Ted Cruz, Donald Trump (AP/Jose Luis Magana/Reuters/Brian Snyder/Photo montage by Salon)

A big part of what made the 2012 election so much fun was the fact that Mitt Romney and pretty much every Republican and conservative who supported his candidacy were utterly and unshakably confident that they had the election in the bag. Gallup and Rasmussen had Romney up, the campaign’s internal polling said Mitt was going to win, and all the state-level polling that portended an Obama blowout could be easily unskewed to show that Romney was actually on track for a glorious victory. It was a done deal, no reason to fret, so Mitt said “the hell with it” and went ahead and campaigned in Pennsylvania the weekend before the election because at that point it was all about running up the score. Romney hadn’t even bothered drafting a concession speech.

Then the voting started and everyone from Mitt Romney on down had a collective “oh shit” moment as they realized that the electorate had far more young and minority voters and far fewer white voters than they’d assumed. The Obama team outhustled Romney where it mattered, and shifting voter demographics helped the president cruise to reelection.

This demographic shift is ongoing and, as a new report from the Center for American Progress makes clear, will play an important role in the 2016 election. Historically speaking, the Republicans should be the favorites to capture the White House next year – it’s rare for the party controlling the White House to win a third consecutive presidential term, owing to voter fatigue and a general desire for change. These factors are exacerbated by President Obama’s middling popularity and the fact that the economic recovery hasn’t been spectacular across the board. But the changing complexion of the electorate will, per the CAP report, help to insulate the party against the effects of economics and history – but only up to a point.

Put simply, the Democratic edge among minority voters, younger voters and educated voters keeps getting stronger as each group comes to represent a larger and larger share of the electorate. And that edge will only be more pronounced heading into 2016. At the same time, the Republican base of non-college-educated white voters continues shrinking as a portion of the electorate. What keeps the Republicans in the game is the fact that their voters are more politically active than the Democrats’ key constituencies and can be better relied upon to actually show up and vote. As my colleague Sean Illing has written, this is a lethal trend for the GOP given that the party is outwardly hostile to minority voters’ interests and keeps trying to wring more and more votes from a demographic that is slowly, inexorably disappearing from this earth.

But they’re not out of it yet, not by any stretch. And CAP’s report lays out two paths to victory for the GOP that could possibly get them over the demographic hump in 2016. The first is to “put all its cards on a nominee and policy strategy that seeks to maximize conservative anger at President Obama and disgust with Washington while appealing to similarly agitated and concerned independent voters in key swing states.” The second is “a strong and compelling case to voters that their nominee and party agenda is sufficiently moderate and inclusive to represent a full range of Americans while simultaneously changing the direction of Washington and turning the corner on the Obama years.” If you were to sum these strategies up, you could call them, respectively, “rage and resentment” and “apathy and bullshit.”

The “rage and resentment” strategy is, as CAP notes, the less promising of the two, but it is more in line generally with what Republican base voters think and believe. Donald Trump is commanding the polls with a xenophobia-laden campaign message that preys on economic anxieties and feeds off the general feelings of disgust Republicans have cultivated toward Washington during the Obama years. Ted Cruz’s explicit strategy is to rail against the “Washington Cartel” and mobilize a supposedly dormant army of conservatives to “vote their values” and power him to the White House.

The path of “apathy and bullshit” is likely what you’re going to see from a candidate like Marco Rubio. The apathy component is critical, as Republicans really need young and minority voters to stay home and eliminate the Democrats’ electoral cushion. “Republicans will hope that… economic pessimism and disappointed expectations will lower youth turnout below its 2012 levels and/or drive youth support to the GOP,” CAP notes. The “bullshit” will come in pitching the GOP agenda as “moderate,” when it is anything but. A candidate like Rubio, for example, is proposing a massive upward redistribution of wealth through the tax code, an aggressive expansion of the defense budget to facilitate overseas military adventurism, a rolling back of gay marriage rights, and the precipitous withdrawal from international climate and nuclear non-proliferation agreements. And he makes no secret of the fact that he intends to obscure the reality of his far-right policy agenda with his inspiring personal history.

That’s the better hope for the GOP when it comes to overcoming the demographic realignment and capitalizing on economic anxieties in 2016. And whoever the Democratic nominee is will have to work diligently to re-create the Obama coalition, or at least prevent it from degrading too much. The Republicans aren’t doomed by demographics yet, but the fact remains that the GOP’s policy platform is broadly out of step with the interests of the fastest-growing demographic groups, and it’s only going to get more difficult to defend that agenda with each passing national election.

By Simon Maloy

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