How large are the stakes in this year’s American presidential election? Pretty huge if you’re a Republican. Jon Chait has an excellent piece in New York magazine explaining how the GOP, in its present form, has mortgaged its future in a bet that Barack Obama will be a one-term President. Defeat, he suggests, will mark the end of the Republican party as we’ve known it since Nixon won. Time and, more importantly, demography is not on its side.
Right-wing warnings of impending tyranny express, in hyperbolic form, well-grounded dread: that conservative America will soon come to be dominated, in a semi-permanent fashion, by an ascendant Democratic coalition hostile to its outlook and interests. And this impending doom has colored the party’s frantic, fearful response to the Obama presidency.
Every year, the nonwhite proportion of the electorate grows by about half a percentage point—meaning that in every presidential election, the minority share of the vote increases by 2 percent, a huge amount in a closely divided country. […] By 2020—just eight years away—nonwhite voters should rise from a quarter of the 2008 electorate to one third.
White voters will remain a large, hugely important constituency but, as matters presently stand, the GOP will have to increase its advantage amongst white voters faster than the electorate becomes less white. That’s a high-risk ploy, not least because there’s probably a limit to how much juice can be extracted from the white, male, non-college educated section of the American electorate. And don’t dismiss Chait as just another liberal who would say that, wouldn’t he? In his new book Now or Never Senator Jim DeMint warns that "The 2012 election may be the last opportunity for Republicans.” The demographic clock is ticking.
Will Republicans win again? Of course they will. The better question is whether this kind of Republican party has a plausible longer-term future or whether the GOP will have to change to appeal to a different kind of America. And it surely will. If there’s anything they could learn from British conservatives – in many respects a bunch of "squishes" compared to the rock-ribbed Republicans across the atlantic ocean – it’s the need to find a way of talking to voters who might agree with you in broad terms but are repelled by the extremity of your language or the sense that there’s an ugly stigma attached to outing yourself as a Tory or Republican.
To take one example: Americans are moving towards accepting gay marriage. Not in all states and not uniformly quickly across the country but moving nonetheless. Younger, college-educated Americans are especially likely to back gay marriage but the Republican party’s attitude towards this issue is couched in such terms that it breeds hostility towards the GOP. In advertising-speak, it tarnishes the brand, making it harder to sell the product’s better qualities. (Perhaps the GOP doesn’t need to shift on gay marriage and this alone won’t be enough, but it needs to make some kind of shift.)
Since voting in the United States is often, perhaps even largely, a matter of cultural affirmation in which voters make a declaration about their values and the type of person they believe themselves to be then this trend, like the GOP’s continuing struggles with Latino voters, is not encouraging for the Republican party. And conservatives know the power of cultural identification: hell, it has been the backbone of the Republican coalition for forty years.
It also stands to reason that if Democrats continue to win two-thirds of the latino vote then, again, the Republican party has a difficult future. If you accept that the United States is still reasonably evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats then the Democratic advantage in a rapidly-growing segment of the population is the electoral equivalent of compound interest: a small thing with dramatic consequences. One poll of Latino voters published last December reported that 73% of hispanic voters think the GOP either ignores or is openly hostile towards Latinos. These voters could agree with the GOP’s economic diagnosis but many of them will still vote for the Democratic candidate.
The demographic changes in the United States mean we are moving from an era in which, when all else was equal or, if you prefer, in "normal" circumstances Republicans had an advantage to one in which Democrats possess that slight but hugely significant advantage.
Of course, recessions and war and other matters can cloud this picture. So can Congressional or statewide elections. In those smaller elections, the electorate is different: often older, often whiter. But when the United States votes together it looks less like the Republican coalition than the Democratic coalition.
In truth, this has been evident for a while now. Al Gore actually won the popular vote against George W Bush and though Bush beat John Kerry it was a closer run thing than you might have expected for an election held after 9/11 in which the President’s opponent was John Kerry. Moreover, it was a victory that relied upon organisation and perspiration more than inspiration. That’s not a criticism: logistics matter and Karl Rove’s identification of "likely" Republican voters and his GOTV operation was, tactically and in terms of 2004 strategically, first-class. Again, however, it was a matter of squeezing every last drop from the availabe voter pool, not a question of attracting new kinds of voter to the Republican banner. Rove is smart enough to know that this is a strategy that promises diminishing returns when that pool of voters is a smaller part of the electorate than it was in previous elections. No wonder Rove argues the GOP needs to branch and reach out.
So the present primary – crazy as it has been – makes a kind of sense if you view it as the death pangs of the post-Nixon Republican party. Granted, pundits have a weakness for the grand sweep of history and era-defining realigments and this should caution us to remember that things can and probably will change. Nevertheless, this Republican party’s culture war is time-limited on the national, continental stage. Republicans needed to make Obama a failure (or persuade Americans he has been a failure, which is not quite the same thing). Their tactics on the Hill make a certain kind of sense, even if they’ve also diminished a Republican brand whose image has taken another battering – at least for those paying attention to the latest shenanigans – during the primary season.
Again and just so we’re clear on this: Republicans will win again but they will not win as often as they have these past forty years unless the Republican coalition changes which means the party will have to change too. That doesn’t look like it will happen in time for this election but it will have to happen eventually. There will always be an appetite for conservatism but a party of old and white voters is going to lose more elections in the future than it did in the past unless it broadens its appeal or the short-term circumstances in a given election prove especially favourable.