In the past I’ve written about Democrats turnout struggles, but they can take solace in the fact the GOP is facing its own turnout struggles. Unlike Democratic issues, the GOP’s struggles are related to class and ideology.
Democrats fret about how not having Obama on the top of the ticket could impact turnout. Under Obama, Democratic friendly groups have turned out in greater numbers than at any other time in history. Meanwhile, GOP turnout has fallen in presidential elections and roughly stayed the same in the midterms.
Yet, where GOP turnout has fallen are the areas where Donald Trump runs the strongest–rural, downscale, majority white counties. Bush ran strongly with these voters in 2004, but GOP turnout dropped in 2008 and 2012.
The characteristics of these counties are indicative of the political transformation shaping national and Republican politics. Blue collar workers without a college education used to be the bedrock of the Democratic Party. But as the party shifted left on social and fiscal issues, these voters have increasingly filled GOP ranks.
These are the kind of voters Bush appealed to in 2004 and Trump does today. They feel forgotten by DC, ignored and used by the GOP, and sick of the “political establishment.” Combined with the GOP’s strong hold on suburban, college-educated whites, these voters should form the backbone of the GOP’s electoral majority.
One problem. They don’t always vote. Turnout dropped in many rural, strong GOP counties in 2008, and 2012 cannot solely be laid at the feet of the political winds. Sure, the economy took a downturn in 2008, and we were recovering in 2012, but that didn’t equal more votes for Democrats. It equaled fewer votes in general from these counties.
Part of the equation is the growing class divide in the GOP exemplified by Trump. Trump wins non-college-educated Republicans in many national and state polls but is far behind college-educated Republicans. The college-educated base of the party has long been its mainstay and has a different set of issues to care about than blue collar workers.
For example, on the issue of immigration, Trump speaks to the beliefs of many non-college-educated Republicans on the issue. “Build a bigger fence,” “speak English,” and “they take our jobs” are all inferences buried into Trump’s language. On the other hand, most of the other GOP Presidential contenders speak to the nuances of the issue: “border security but skilled labor,” “enforce the law but remain a place people want to come,” etc.
The strongest Republican candidates in recent contests have hailed from these kinds of areas. Corey Gardner in Colorado hailed from rural, east Colorado. Joni Ernst represented a rural, eastern Iowa state senate district before her 2014 win. Notably, these candidates did not just win rural counties but also did well in suburban Denver and Des Moines, illustrating their electoral appeal. It further illustrates that suburban voters are willing to back candidates with a rural socioeconomic history.
This stands in stark contrast to Mitt Romney. The former Governor of Massachusetts was widely believed to be the party’s best nominee. But, while Romney ran as strong as Bush in suburban counties in Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Florida, his margins dropped precipitously in rural counties. Rural Republican-leaning voters did not embrace his wealth or his recent conversion to everything conservative.
The lesson here is simple. The GOP is becomingly increasingly split along class issues more than ideology. While standard GOP rhetoric on government, taxes, and over-regulation wins over some voters, it does not all. If Republicans don’t speak to how government can help they are in danger of becoming a permanent minority as more voters become disenfranchised from a government and process that doesn’t work.
Fortunately, some Republicans have. Marco Rubio has propsed a tripling of the EITC to help struggling parents find work. Rand Paul wants to streamline the tax code. Even Walker is touting the benefits of right-to-work and streamlining teaching credentials.
Republicans have to find a way to bring these voters back into the fold. An appealing candidate is a start (not a Romney), but the other part is bridging the party’s class divide through minimal governmental action to better people’s lives.
Trump has captured these voters hearts on rhetoric but not on substance. The right Republican could do the same and recapture the White House for the GOP.