First, let me state that this is by no means is an advocation for the GOP to ignore minorities in 2014 and 2016. The changing demographics of the country ensure at some point the GOP has to improve with minorities to win Senate and Presidential elections (they have proven they can win statewide constitutional elections without minorities). But it is important to note that for all the analysts and media outlets that report the GOP needs to win minorities, ie. pass immigration reform, move to the left on social issues, extend unemployment benefits, etc. there is actually little evidence to support this supposition.
Republicans would certainly benefit from winning a higher share of the minority vote. A ceiling of a mere 20% ensures the party will struggle to win national elections. But this is predicated off several assumptions. First, minority turnout will continually increase in elections, second, Democrats will maintain their stranglehold on these voters, and third that the Democratic firewall in Presidential elections will be maintained in 2016 (not to mention beyond). I will handle each of these assumptions in turn below.
1. Minority Turnout: Many analysts have made a number of comparisons between the 2008/2012 elections and prior elections where Republicans (Reagan/HW) and Bill Clinton won. For example, in 1992 when Bill Clinton won his first term the minority share of the vote was 12% but in 2012 that jumped to 28% (according to exit polls). What this analysis tends to miss is that Bill Clinton won a narrow plurality of the white vote (something no Democrat has done since) and Ross Perot stole white votes away from HW (though perhaps not enough to change the ultimate result). Since that time white voters have increasingly shifted to the GOP while the minority vote has not increased significantly for Democrats but their voting percentages have. In other words, Democrats are benefiting from fewer white voters entering the electorate and larger shares of minority voters entering the electorate. But this of course assumes that this continues in perpetuity. Indeed, many Democrats fully admit they do not expect this to happen. Consider that Democrats are planning on a whiter and older electorate showing up in 2014 compared to 2012. It has also been noted in local legislative races in VA, KY and WA state and most recently in the San Diego mayoral special election that drop-offs in Democratic turnout have occurred at alarming rates, particularly among minorities.
Now let’s assume for a moment that Democratic fears come true and the 2014 electorate is as white or almost as white as 2010 (78%). The discussion would than likely turn to 2016 and how the GOP will struggle because of a more diverse electorate. But a resurgence in white voting is not unprecedented. Consider that in 1992 white voters percentage of the electorate grew after four straight elections of increased minority turnout. Also, black turnout in 2008 and 2012 was 13% and over of the electorate. The entire black population of the country is pegged right at 13% meaning it is hard to see a non-black candidate inspiring such voting in the black community (especially in harsh economic times). What is much more conceivable is an increase in Hispanic and Asian turnout. Hispanics were 8% of the electorate in 2008 and 10% in 2012 while Asians were 3% in 08 and 5% in 2012. If Asians vote 66% for the Democrat and Hispanics 71% for the Democratic nominee (2012 levels) the GOP candidate would need to over-perform among whites.
2. Democratic lock on minorities: Democrats crow that the minority share of the electorate is increasing and they have a lock on these voters but what appears to be happening is less so this and an emerging interest in voting by younger voters. Barack Obama would not have won diverse states like Virginia and Florida without younger voters backing (even if his minority shares remained the same). This has coincided with a drop-off in white voting. As minorities grow as a share of the electorate Democrats argue it will increasingly allow them to pick off strong GOP states such as North Carolina and Georgia (VA and CO already flipped). But this argument is far to simplistic. In both states the GOP state party is fractured making it hard to appeal to ANY set of voters. Furthermore, the GOP controls the state assembly in VA by a large margin and has a large minority in the state senate in CO. Democrats might want to note that in 2012 with Romney winning 59% of the white vote and larger in many other states that Obama would have had to win 78% of Hispanics nationally to steal North Carolina, 86% for Arizona and an unfathomable 98% to flip Texas. Good luck hitting those numbers. EVER!
Where the Democratic argument on this front really falls apart however is on two fronts; minorities are a firm base in the party and that their existing base will not react badly to minority public policy demands (and hence shift voting patterns, more on this in a future column). Indeed, one only has to go back to 20o4 to see Bush won 40% of Asians, 44% of Hispanics and 10% of blacks. This was in a fairly neutral environment politically. Republicans managed to win 38% of Hispanics in 2010 in a wave year midterm. This does not suggest that minorities are a firm lock for Democrats even in Presidential years, especially if the issues Democrats campaign on to attract their votes start to get stale (discrimination, Civil Rights, War on women, etc.).
Second, the voting preferences of the Democratic base might be the same but their policy preferences are quite different. Consider that the upper class suburban vote Democrats have successfully courted since 1992 is quite different from minority preferences. For example, on education charter schools enjoy support among blacks (despite electing anti-charter school candidates) but for upper class suburban Democrats the issue does not rate high on their radar. On taxes, these same suburban voters might not have a problem with raising taxes a few percent on $250K and above or raising the minimum wage but they likely would object to minority tax preferences (as in a much larger tax hike). This split does not ensure that Democrats have a lock on high income minorities (suburbanites in this analysis) or a lock on the voting habits of low-income minorities.
Consider another example. Minorities, particularly African Americans, are strong supporters of charter schools while many whites are more supportive of public schools. Republicans in many states and nationally have championed charter schools and various voucher systems that would help low-income minorities go to private or charter schools.
3. The Democratic Electoral Firewall: It has been noted that “In the last two decades of Democratic dominance, 18 states and the District of Columbia have voted Democratic six out of six times. These currently have 242 electoral votes, which is quite close to the 270 needed to win the presidency. There are 13 states that have voted Republican in every election since 1992, but they total just 102 electoral votes.” This is certainly true. Republican successes have been consolidated in the Midwest and West while Democratic locks have been in the Rust Belt and Northeast. But a closer look at the numbers shows that “Since 1992, eight states with 89 electoral votes have moved more than five points toward Democrats (relative to the popular vote) while 12 states with 84 electoral votes have moved more than five points toward Republicans.” In other words, it has been a wash in terms of states becoming more partisan. Rather, many of the modern massive Democratic states (CA, NY, PA) were already more Democratic than the nation but stayed with the GOP through the 80’s because of strong Republican performances nationally.
Indeed, many of the states in the Democratic firewall have begun to trend towards the GOP, minus 2008. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Ohio, chalk full of working class whites have followed a national trend and moved more towards the GOP. In a fairly favorable year for Democrats in 2012 this trend did not reverse as one might suspect. Instead, Democrats won these states on the basis of their core support turning out (singles, the young and minorities).
This begs the question of whether a bad/terrible environment for a Democrat in 2016 would allow a GOP nominee to consolidate party gains in these states and perhaps break the Democratic lock on these states? Certainly it could. From 1968-1988 when Republican candidates, minus 76, were dominating the electoral landscape they faced favorable political and economic environments. Consider in 68 Nixon faced a fractured and demoralized Democratic party (RFK’s assassination), in 72 Nixon was able to scare away his toughest Democratic challenger (Senator Edward Muskie). Only in 76 did Ford lose to a Southerner in Carter who held the South for a party increasingly shedding that region’s voters. From 80-92 the economic environment was stellar for Republicans and their competition was sub par.
So there might be a lesson here for both parties. Republicans, nominate an appealing broad-based candidate who speaks to suburbanites, blue-collar workers and conservative intellectuals. Also, at the same time the nominee does not scare off minority voters as Romney did. Democrats, moving further to the left is not necessarily a recipe for success. The same kinds of voters, upper class suburbanites, that Democrats are winning today did not go for the party during 80-92 (Mondale, Dukakis and Carter’s runs) when liberalism was ascendant. So perhaps moving left is not necessarily the right way forward for the party.
The overall message here is that Republicans can win in 2016 without significantly increasing their share of the minority vote from 2012. External factors would need to occur such as higher white turnout (at least 2012 level support) or decreased minority turnout or a shift in the voting patterns of the young and singles (which of course would shift other data). As has been evidenced above this can occur and I would put the odds of it occurring at no worse than 50/50 due to the political/economic environment likely to face Democrats (Obamacare, sluggish economy, long-term unemployment and demographic shifts in working patterns) in 2016. If Republicans are smart they will capitalize on these factors and, at least in the short-term, put to rest the idea minorities doom the GOP to being locked out of the White House.