The Disappearing Republican Voter
Ronald Reagan dreamed of turning the GOP into America’s permanent majority—but his dreams were designed for a different time, a different people.
Republican voters are disappearing. The Republican Party built its power on the white vote, the church-going vote, and the male vote. But each of these groups are shrinking as a share of the electorate, while groups with little taste for the GOP are exploding. Consider the chart below: voter groups colored red tend to vote Republican for president, while blue colored voting groups are Democratic—sometimes by immense margins (for complete 2004 data, see CNN exit poll archives).
Which of these sets of voting blocs are shrinking and which are growing? It’s quite basic—whites, men, and weekly church goers are all shrinking as a share of the electorate every year. White, weekly church going men are shrinking fastest of all. And there’s the heart of the problem for the GOP
A demographic disaster awaits the Republican party. Barack Obama represents a fundamental transformation in the American electorate. The GOP majority built on white, church-going men is collapsing as new voters reduce the Republican party to the status of bewildered minority.
GOP Struggles with Southern Strategy Legacy
It was back in the 1960s that the tectonic plates of today’s electoral landscape were forged when the two parties took their stands on the politics of the day. The Democratic party stood with the civil rights movements, with the rising force of feminism, and with a “counter-cultural” vision of a non-religious state.
On the other hand, The Republican Party followed what Nixon called a “southern strategy.” Republican strategists measured the demographics and concluded that they could stand with the white south against civil rights, with patriarchs denouncing feminism and with evangelicals defending the role of Christianity in schools and in public life—GOP leaders concluded back then that such a strategy would win elections.
One of the architects of the southern strategy, key Nixon advisor Kevin Phillips, described the GOP’s strategic choice to repudiate black voters and welcome southern whites back in a 1970 New York Times interview (James Boyd, May 17, 1970, “Nixon’s Southern strategy: ‘It’s All in the Charts,'” The New York Times).
“From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that… but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.”
Following a 1981 interview with Lee Atwater (another key Republican advisor, and Bush the First’s campaign manager), New York Times reporter Bob Herbert summarized the heart of the GOP’s continued reliance on the “Southern Strategy.”
“The truth is that there was very little that was subconscious about the G.O.P.’s relentless appeal to racist whites. Tired of losing elections, it saw an opportunity to renew itself by opening its arms wide to white voters who could never forgive the Democratic Party for its support of civil rights and voting rights for blacks.”
Today’s Diverse Electorate Going Democrat
The southern strategy might have worked back then, when whites were 90% of the electorate, and male and rural churchgoing voters outpaced their counterparts. But today, The “Southern strategy” electorate has become a minority, and the most rapidly growing groups are voting Democratic.
Today, only 2% of all GOP voters are Latino. Only 1% of Republicans are Black. Barely 15% of GOP voters are under 35. The GOP is built on an aging, dying electoral coalition.
When Obama rolls into town, the largest demographic in American history will be people aged 18-29 (see previous posts on “Millennials Rising” and “The Obama Generation”)—and they will vote Democratic in record shattering numbers. The Latino vote will be the largest in American history—and it will be about 70% Democratic. Women and Black voters will be in Obama’s camp.
Newsweek’s Michael Barone and other observers have made the counter-argument that demographics are actually tilting in the Republican party’s direction, by pointing to the fact that red states that tend to lean Republican in their presidential votes are growing more rapidly than blue states, and that they will therefore receive more electoral college votes (and seats in the House of Representatives) following the next U.S Census.
Here’s the list of states that are predicted to gain and lose House seats and Electoral College votes following the 2010 Census.
But this kind of analysis misses the possibility that pro-Democratic demographic transformation that may be sweeping through these traditionally red and blue states, just as it is the rest of the country. Some red states like Utah and Texas are likely to remain reliably Republican. But “red” states like Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina and Arizona are brimming with new Latino voters, increasingly educated “creative class” voters, and other such demographic changes that point the states towards the Democrats—not the Republicans.
Facing demographic disaster in 2008, the Republican party may pursue new variations on the Southern strategy, trying to maximize the ever-shrinking conservative white vote. Expect familiar demonization of immigrants, tired broadsides against black welfare-queens, and continual Rush Limbaugh denunciations of femi-nazis and gays as destroying the American way of life.
In the short run, The GOP can count on the old Southern strategy to keep its grip on white, male, frequent churchgoers—but the problem for the GOP is that these same voter groups are losing their grip on America.