After a week of election postmortems, one thing is clear: Mitt Romney’s failure to understand America’s changing demographics led to his undoing. But there was another killer: Geography. Deep blue cities and their inner suburbs came out for Barack Obama, pulling the president through in battleground states like Colorado, Ohio, Virginia, and Florida. And they put him so far ahead in places like Wisconsin, Nevada, and Pennsylvania that Romney never really had a chance (not to mention his home base of Suffolk County, Massachusetts, which went 78 percent for the president).
Of course, this isn't a new phenomenon. In 2008, Obama took cities even more convincingly, allowing him to win North Carolina and Indiana as well. But America is only growing more urban, with cities that had been losing population since the 1960s finally starting to swell again. Eventually, fast-growing blue cities like San Antonio, Houston, and Austin could bring even the GOP stronghold of Texas within the Democrats' reach. In the long term, the stakes are high: Republicans could be relegated to permanent minority party status.
"One of two things will eventually happen," says Columbia University professor Ester Fuchs, who's served as an advisor to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "Either [the GOP] will change from the inside and transform, because it will lose its ability to create a majority coalition over time. Or, if the Republican Party doesn't recognize the demographic shifts, they will disappear as one of the major parties."
This isn't just concerning if you're a Republican. One-party rule doesn't make for a healthy democracy, and neither does a stark ideological divide between cities and the sparsely populated lands around them (even in states Romney won, like Missouri, cities are marooned in a sea of red). So the question becomes: Can Republicans start to contest urban areas again?
Yes, but they’ll need to get over their cultural aversion to the metropolis—even if it means losing a few of the places they've relied on in the past.
CONSERVATIVES, BY NOW, should be very comfortable with adapting to changing demographics. They've done it before. Back in the 1960s, inner cities were on the decline, their white residents high-tailing it for the urban fringe. Democrats responded with a war on poverty. Richard Nixon, by contrast, saw an opening.
"[Republicans] recognized the same problems. They didn’t see them as something to be solved, but something to be exploited," explains Princeton University history professor Kevin Kruse. Kevin Phillips' seminal 1969 book The Emerging Republican Majority outlined a "southern strategy" to wrest white people away from the Democrats—by demonizing the black inner cities. "If you look at who he's talking to, it's a 'suburban strategy,'" says Kruse.
In the 1970s, Nixon followed up with a battery of policies designed to re-segregate the American landscape, most effectively through Supreme Court nominees who ruled against busing for educational diversity and upheld discriminatory zoning ordinances. The approach was validated in 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the presidency without carrying a single major city. From then on, the GOP and cities seemed to be antithetical: A party that believes government is the problem won't find support where people rely on government for everyday services.
"There are certain things in which the physical nature of a city, the fact the people are piled on top of each other, requires some notion of the public good," says Kruse. "Conservative ideology works beautifully in the suburbs, because it makes sense spatially."
The antipathy between the GOP and cities goes both ways. Not only do urban dwellers generally oppose Republicans in presidential races, but when conservatives do get elected to a city post, they have a hard time advancing to the national stage. While Republicans have drifted far to the right in recent years, municipal governance is largely non-partisan in nature, and urban politicians who try to adopt the kind of ideological swagger they need to weather a Republican primary often aren't convincing. Just look at Rudy Giuliani, who in 2008 made a short-lived bid for the GOP presidential nomination on his impeccable law-and-order credentials, but was tainted by progressive stances on social hot-buttons like gun control and abortion. With the defeat and retirement of former Republican mayors like Richard Lugar and George Voinovich, the national party has no vocal urban advocates left.
The party as a whole isn’t bereft of such advocates—they’re just much further down the hierarchy, dealing with the day-to-day of urban governance. Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett, who heads up the U.S. Council of Mayors' microscopic caucus of conservative local officials ("It's little more than a social gathering," he says), has managed to convince a very conservative populace to fund its own streetcar system and is trying to densify an urban core originally built for the automobile. He ran for Congress once and lost, and says a good mayoral record of paving streets and picking up the trash doesn't tend to go far with the party's right-wing base.
"Municipal politics draws everybody to the center. You hang around long enough, you can’t stay on the edges," Cornett says. "At the end of the day, people elect mayors to get things done."
AS CITIES HAVE recovered, and poor people are increasingly settling outside of them, the GOP's suburban strategy has stopped working.
"A city is no longer a collection of pathologies," says Stephen Goldsmith, a former Republican mayor of Indianapolis who's now a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "I think if we don’t better articulate the hope that comes from conservative ideas, that’s going to be a problem."
So far, Republicans have failed to recognize this. The economic plank of their party platform, crafted entirely by exurbanites, practically labels cities a liberal creation. While conservative pundits like Peggy Noonan pleaded for the Romney campaign to hold a rally in Brooklyn, and Paul Ryan wanted to campaign in cities on an anti-poverty message of economic empowerment, Romney advisors nixed the idea, saying those issues didn't test well for them. Instead of reaching out to urban voters, the GOP chair in Ohio's Franklin county tried to keep them away from the polls, arguing that the state shouldn't "contort the voting process to accommodate the urban—read African-American—voter-turnout machine" in Columbus.
But it's an odd kind of defeatism: Cities are centers of innovation and entrepreneurship, competition and the creation of wealth. "That's something that the Republican party should be looking to as a model, not running from," says Harvard professor Ed Glaeser. As a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Glaeser has laid out a a libertarian agenda for cities that includes breaking down teachers unions' opposition to charter schools, freedom from zoning regulations that constrain growth, an end to federal subsidies for highways that just prompt people to drive, and a move away from the culture-war tropes that have dominated GOP rhetoric in the past.
There are already successful test cases for Republicans in cities. Last year, Al Schmidt won a seat on the deeply Democratic Philadelphia City Commission by campaigning for a viable two-party system, along with honest and efficient government. In Queens, Republican Bob Turner won the special election to replace Rep. Anthony Weiner by reaching out to Orthodox Jews and Russian immigrants, who'd never been engaged before.
"It was almost as if the Russians in Brooklyn were waiting for someone to take them seriously," says Turner consultant William O'Reilly, who’s been in the business of winning over New York voters for Republicans since the 1980s. His rule of thumb: You have to get at least 30 percent of the city to win statewide, which former Governor George Pataki did by opening offices in neighborhoods like Dominican-dominated Washington Heights.
"They weren’t afraid of him," O'Reilly says. "He was willing to try and be there, and there was nothing angry about him."
While searching their souls about what went wrong this election cycle, Republicans would do well to remember that. Making inroads in cities begins with showing up.