Last week the Republican Party’s National Convention Search Committee announced they had decided on the city of Cleveland to host the party’s 2016 convention. Technically, the Committee cannot make this official without an actual vote of RNC Executive Committee members but confirmation of their decision is all but assured. Dallas, Texas was the other option and Texas officials did not mount the full court press that Ohio and Cleveland officials mounted to Search Committee members to secure the lucrative and massive three-day event.
Republicans have only won the popular vote once since 1988 and the electoral college twice (out of six elections). Democrats have assembled their victories through various coalitions. The Clinton coalition of 92 and 96 involved minorities, the young, urban gentry liberals and Southern whites. The Obama coalition of 08 and 012 consisted of the young, minorities, women and urban gentry liberals. George Bush’s victories in 2000 and 2004 were built on the backs of Southern whites and evangelicals.
But Republicans also believe there are a large bloc of voters that both Clinton and Obama carried that are slowly turning away from the Democratic Party; blue-collar whites. These voters supported Bush’s bids in 2000 and 2004 and turned to the GOP in 2010. But come 2012 and the Romney candidacy, many of these whites stayed home or voted for Obama instead of the aristocratic Romney.
The Republican Party’s Cleveland selection speaks to the struggles the GOP is having attracting minorities and young voters to its cause. The 2012 Presidential Election Autopsy released by the RNC revealed thousands of interviews with young voters and women who believed the GOP was in the pocket of the rich, outdated and run by old, white men. The Cleveland selection indicates the GOP is likely to double down on its 2012 election strategy.
In 2012, Romney and Republicans counted on the fact the weak economy would depress minority and youth turnout. While more young people voted for Romney than McCain, it was not nearly enough. Instead of minority turnout decreasing from 2008 it actually increased while white turnout decreased. Romney’s campaign largely centered on winning white votes and as many as they could. While Romney did win a record 59% of the white vote (not done since Reagan in 84), white turnout as a share of the overall electorate was smaller than ever before.
Given the current political allegiances of the young and minorities it appears Republicans have concluded they have a better chance of attracting more white voters to their ranks in the short term. Republicans can point to the election of 2010 as support for this belief. In 2010, Republicans swept to a massive majority in the House and took over numerous Governorships across the country largely because they won 64% of the blue collar, white vote. Republicans hope the political climate in 2014 and 2016 will allow them to repeat the success of 2010 among these voters.
Democrats counter that the white share of the electorate is only going to shrink going forward and that demographic trends give them a better chance of flipping a red state (Texas, Arizona or Georgia) than the white vote gives the GOP of flipping a Democratic leaning state in the Midwest (Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, etc.). But this ignores two ominous facts for the party. First, Obama ran much more strongly with whites in the Midwest than he did in the South (minus Florida). Case in point: Obama won whites in Iowa 51%-47%, lost whites by 49%-48% in Minnesota, lost whites 51%-48% in Wisconsin. He struggled among whites in Michigan and Ohio but was buoyed by the states large black populations. Second, the electorates in TX, GA, and AZ are highly polarized with whites supporting Republicans by massive majorities and minorities doing the same with Democrats. Further, as Josh Kraushaar has noted over at the National Journal, minority turnout in these states lags far behind their white counterparts. One should not expect this to change in 2014 and likely 2016.
Democrats still need blue-collar white votes to hold the Midwest. White made up 93% of the electorate in Iowa, 86% in Wisconsin, 79% in Ohio and over 80% in Minnesota and Michigan. If Obama had lost white voters in Iowa he probably would have lost the state. If he had lost whites by a few points more in Minnesota Romney could have played their, ditto Wisconsin. As Democrats increasingly become a majority-minority and majority-women party it may be harder to appeal to the whites that Republicans hope to target heading into 2016.
Republican efforts to woo these white voters needs to go beyond just the selection of Cleveland for their National Convention. A Romney re-run would likely make many of these voters again turn away from the GOP. Further, turnout in the South could lag and allow the Democratic nominee to flip North Carolina and hold Florida and Virginia. Republicans have struggled against the Democratic claim that they are the party of the rich. Another Romney candidacy would only exacerbate these struggles.
Still, Democrats may be hamstrung by their ultimate nominee. It seems all but inevitable that if Hillary Clinton runs she will be the party’s nominee. But Hillary has also shown how weak a candidate she is compared to Obama and her husband. Her comment’s about being “flat broke” after she and Bill left the White House evoke images of Romney’s 47% comment. Her relative lack of policy success as Secretary of State and high negatives are sure to be played on by Republicans. So perhaps Republicans have a shot at wooing whites back to the GOP in 2016.
The GOP is running a beta test of sorts for 2014 in close Senate races. In Colorado, Congressman Cory Gardner is attempting to win enough of these voters to offset his losses in urban and suburban Denver. In Iowa, state Rep. Joni Ernst is banking on bringing enough whites to her side to even out her loses in urban Des Moines. In Governor’s races in the Midwest featuring GOP incumbents, John Kasich (OH), Scott Walker (WI), Terry Branstad (IA) and Pete Snyder (MI), Republicans hope to capture these voters in another midterm and perhaps gain their provisional support for 2016.
Even if the GOP strategy for 2014 and 2016 pays off the GOP will need to eventually branch out to women, minorities and the young. How this can be done is a widely debated topic in the party but a consensus seems to have emerged that the party’s best bet is to focus on privacy issues, making government more efficient and accepting gay marriage. The GOP’s selection of Cleveland as their 2016 Convention location however suggests the party is unlikely to focus primarily on these voting blocs for 2016. Instead, capturing more of the white vote in the key Midwest seems to be the GOP’s game plan for retaking the White House.