Some facts from an article in the New York Times by John Harwood got me thinking. His argument was straightforward: in a close election President Obama will have an edge due to changes in demographics. Some facts:
- 89% of the electorate was white in 1976, now it is 74%
- 1% of the electorate was Hispanic in 1976, now it is 9%
- In 12 battleground states the “working class white” vote is down 3% from 2008
This may mean that the election is “economics vs. demographics,” though that’s oversimplifying. But what does this say about the future? To me it points to an inevitable shift in the Republican party as they move to embrace policies that right now are anathema to the Tea Party, such as immigration reform, gay marriage, and a welfare reform that doesn’t just seek to cut welfare, but make it more effective. The Democrats, on the other hand, need to find a way not to have to rely on non-whites for victory. Both parties face a demographic challenge, though the GOP’s situation is more dire.
Consider – the shifts described above are not over. The working class white vote is declining, the white vote in general will continue to go down (and at some point be below 50%), the urban vote is growing, the rural vote receding, and Hispanics are voting in ever larger numbers.
At some point, the Presidency will be almost unwinnable to the GOP if they do not shift policies in order to appeal to these demographic groups. This isn’t yet true in 2012, and maybe not be for a few election cycles, but the writing is on the wall. If the 2008 election had been held with the demographics of 1976 or even 1988, Obama wouldn’t have had a chance. A President Obama was only possible because of demographic change.
Some of the Tea Party is driven by fear of this change. The cultural transformation of the last thirty five years have been immense, and many yearn to return to when things were “normal.” However, anti-immigration stances are poison for the GOP. Besides not getting results, they assure that the largest growing demographic is captured by the Democrats, even if there are some big name Republican Hispanics. This doesn’t have to be; Hispanics are not naturally predisposed to the Democrats, the GOP is pushing them into Democratic hands. If this goes on too long, they will be hard to convert.
It’s a no-brainer that the GOP has to alter its stance. It must embrace immigration reform, even if it draws the ire of their base. It may be too late for candidate Romney to aspire to win much of the Hispanic vote, even if he chooses Marc Rubio to be his Veep. There are too many sound and video bites of Romney from the primary season that the Obama team is going to make sure get a lot of airplay before the election.
Even though they are not representative of the GOP, social conservatives have been very good at getting involved, being active in local organizations, and making it to the polls, especially during primary season. Take an issue like gay marriage. A majority of Americans now support it, and the largest number of supporters are among the youth. The culture has shifted and that can’t be undone.
But unlike immigration reform, the GOP can finesse this one. Romney is refusing to make this a major campaign theme, which irritates social conservatives like Rick Santorum. The GOP can take a “states’ rights” stance and say that this isn’t an issue for a President. That way Republicans in Alabama can be stalwart against gay marriage while a Massachusetts Republican can be progressive. Over time, the issue will lose its relevance, just as interracial marriage did.
The GOP also needs to mesh it’s conservative values with an understanding of the challenges facing minorities and the poor. George W. Bush has already shown how to do that. In 2000 he talked about ‘compassionate conservatism’ and about building an ‘ownership’ society. Rather than painting social welfare, unions and the like as all bad – with free market and less government the vaguely defined alternative, Bush’s approach sought to redefine the role of government with new markers. Even ardent Democrats have to admit that high debt loads and the growing number of poor show that the programs we have now aren’t working right. A discussion of how to fix things needs to be more than one said asking for more and the other side asking for less. (I discussed ways the GOP could hone it’s message here).
Ultimately it’s not a question of if the Republicans will change, but when and how. So Democrats should not get too comfortable looking at the demographic trends. Parties adapt to cultural shifts. The loud tea party “take back America” voice of today cannot win in the long run, and wouldn’t even have a chance if not for the on going economic crisis. Just as Obama couldn’t have won back in 1988, Romney of today wouldn’t have a chance in 2028.
As Republicans adapt to the new environment and their party changes, Democrats will also be forced to change as well. When the GOP starts making inroads with Hispanics and other minorities, the Democrats will have to address what used to be their core constituency: working class whites. If the two parties become voices for ethnic blocs, American politics will break down. We need two effective parties exploring creative ideas will nudge each other not to be complacent with a particular ideology or set of solutions.
These demographic trends point to two parties that face both long challenges and great opportunities. Democrats should look at working class whites (their support among them is about 30-35%) as a great potential source of votes. Republicans should look at Hispanics and other minorities as their key to the future – as Karl Rove and George W. Bush tried to do in 2000. Avoiding the demographic split is the best way for the two parties to heal the dysfunction the defines US politics today.