For anybody looking to read some stats to start off this post, consider this; in 2008 the Rust Belt (MN, WI, MI, OH, IN, IL and PA) had a combined total of 108 electoral votes. In 2012 the region had a combined 105 electoral votes. The GOP won zero electoral votes in 08 and 11 2012. If the GOP is to compete in 2016 it must do much better in this pivotal region of the country. This is especially true as the composition of the electorate changes ideologically and demographically.
Look at Virginia and Colorado. Until 2008 both states were considered Republican strongholds. But now, two elections later, Democrats hold all statewide offices in Virginia and its two Senate seats. In Colorado, Democrats control both US Senate seats, the legislature and the Governor’s mansion. Oh, and there is the little fact that Obama carried both states by decisive margins in 2008 and 2012. This shows the electoral map is changing and the GOP cannot afford to wait for the ideal conditions to re-win these states. Of course the GOP must fight for these states but they also must seek to win new states. Perhaps no set of states offer the GOP a better opportunity than those in the Rustbelt.
Unlike Virginia, Colorado and other Republican or former Republican states that are changing demographically the composition of the region’s population has remained largely static racially. While the region lost 3 electoral votes due to the 2010 Census this did not change the composition of the region’s overall demographics. Whites, currently a solid majority of the GOP’s coalition make up a majority of the region’s population. While many of the regions states boast population centers with a liberal, educated bloc of voters these voters by themselves are not enough to swing the state. Rather, Democrats, despite moving away from socially conservative, blue collar whites still garner enough of their votes to carry many of these states. Historically, this has been helped by the power of unions but in recent years their power over politics and members has waned (see Wisconsin recalls and Michigan’s Right to Work law).
What should give the GOP hope it can compete in the region is that many of the states (and one I did not include, Iowa) boast Republican Governors and state legislatures. Republicans have proven they can win at the statewide level. This gives the party a solid foundation to build on and promote their brand. While the Congressional Republican brand might be toxic, at the state level many Republicans are popular and expected to easily win reelection. In fact, some of the party’s most likely 2016 candidates come from the region; Governor Scott Walker (WI) and John Kasich (OH). Both have taken different approaches to governing but both have succeeded in balancing state budgets and pushing back against leftist efforts to reverse their success.
Since the 1980’s blue-collar whites have been making a uniform swing towards the GOP. This accelerated with the South’s transition to the GOP and has slowly continued. This helps explain why Rust Belt Democratic strongholds such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio have actually moved to the right while the country to the whole has moved leftward. Republicans would do well to field a candidate in 2016 who can connect with these kinds of voters that went 64% for the GOP in 2010 and by not so nearly huge a margin in 2012 (Mitt Romney).
As impossible as the task may currently seem for Republicans the effort must be undertaken. As it stands now the GOP has no wiggle-room in the electoral map. This explains why by the time the polls closed in Colorado and Ohio was already called Romney had to win every outstanding swing state to take the Presidency. Adding a state like Wisconsin or Pennsylvania would give the GOP an automatic 20 or 40 electoral vote cushion (win for GOP and loss for Democrats). Ohio is likely to continue to be a perennial swing state but that depends on blue-collar voters coming out for the GOP to mitigate black turnout in urban Cincinnati and Cleveland.
This strategy partly depends on the GOP nominee. Candidates such as Senator Rand Paul, Marco Rubio or Governor Chris Christie would likely try to court a younger and more upscale coalition of voters that does not energize blue-collar whites. Ideally, this coalition would give the GOP Ohio (by carrying the suburbs) and perhaps another state in the region. Rather, such a coalition would likely let the GOP keep Georgia and compete in New Hampshire, Virginia and Colorado. However, if the nominee is a Governor from the region the odds are better the GOP can pull off the strategy.
It is still three years until the 2016 Presidential election but the GOP cannot afford to wait for circumstances to come together in their favor. Rather, they should be working on a strategy to fight hard for the region’s votes courting both young and old, white and minority and college and non college educated. If not, the national environment might favor the GOP in 2016 but the electoral college will not.