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The 'Emerging Democratic Majority' Isn't Assured—Unless the GOP Refuses to Change

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The future of the GOP has been up for debate since its defeat in last November’s elections, and for the most part the question has been not if, but how Republicans should change. More recently, though, well-respected analysts are debating whether the GOP really needs to change at all. George Washington University's John Sides argued in the Washington Post that the 2012 results “didn’t prove that the Republican Party needs a reboot,” prompting New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait to recapitulate the “Emerging Democratic Majority” thesis and Real Clear Politics' Sean Trende to recapitulate his own thesis that 2012 postmortems "are overwrought."

I’m so tired of debating the “Emerging Democratic Majority.” Or maybe I’m just tired of the way the "Emerging Democratic Majority" gets debated. Many of its critics are responding to a different claim than the one made by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira in 2004's The Emerging Democratic Majority. Judis and Teixeira don’t argue, for instance, that Democrats are predestined to hold a permanent majority for several decades. Nor do they contend that Democrats can abandon white working-class voters. Judis and Teixeira preempt many of the most persuasive, if uninteresting responses, like the possibility that failure in governance or liberal overreach could prevent Democrats from winning as many elections as they would otherwise. The authors are willing to concede each of those points, and more.

The debate over a permanent Democratic majority has devolved into discussions of long-term uncertainty (like the possibility that the economy will falter) and the perils of maintaining a diverse coalition (unforeseen issues could divide a coalition already fractured by culture and class). But Republican strategists and politicians won’t—can’t—count on Democrats' imploding between now and 2016. Who knows where the economy will be in four years? Even if Democrats might fracture one day, it is difficult to envision the Democratic coalition descending into internecine conflict anytime soon. Majorities don’t last, at least in part because minority parties make adjustments to capitalize on opportunities. After all, the New Deal coalition wasn’t won with appeals to free silver or a League of Nations.

The important question isn’t whether Democratic dominance is inevitable, but how the GOP must adjust and compensate for generational and demographic changes. Yes, Obama’s 3.9 point margin of victory was modest in historical terms. But the last four elections have largely re-litigated the same issues, sorting voters into two of the most ideologically coherent political coalitions in American history. The “red states” and “blue states” have withstood twelve unusually tumultuous years, from 9/11 to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to a historic financial crisis. This isn’t the post-war norm; the electoral maps of 1948, 1960, 1968, and 1976 look quite different from each other, even though all were close. Many of the fluctuations in the two party coalitions over the last twelve years can be attributed to ideological sorting, like the continuing decline of Democratic fortunes in Appalachia or Republican losses in the affluent and well-educated suburbs of Denver, Washington, and Raleigh. These changes are reinforcing divisions between the two parties, not upending them.

The problem for Republicans is simple: They built relatively durable, ideological coalitions immediately before a new generation of socially moderate and diverse voters completely upended the electoral calculus. In 2012, voters over age 30 went for Romney by 1.5 points—a result that shouldn’t surprise observers of the Bush elections. But the persistent and narrow GOP lean of the 2000 and 2004 electorates was overwhelmed by Obama’s 24-point victory among 18-to-29-year-olds. Democratic success with young voters is a product of demographics, not just Obama’s fleeting appeal or Bush’s legacy. Just 58 percent of 18-to-29-year-old voters were white in 2012 and 19 percent said they have no religious affiliation; in comparison, 76 percent of voters over 30 were white and only 10 percent were non-religious.

The ascent of millennial voters has turned the Bush coalition into a coffin—and the coffin could be sealed in 2016. It was frequently observed that a Romney victory would have required a historic performance among white voters, provided that Obama could match his ’08 performance among non-white voters. Bush’s 2004 performance among white voters wouldn’t get it done anymore. In 2016, the math gets even more challenging. If the white share of the electorate declines further, Republicans won’t just need to match their best performance of the last 24 years among white voters, they’ll also need to match their best performance of the last 24 years among non-white voters. If they can’t make the requisite 16-point gain among non-white voters—a tall order, to say the least—then the next Republican candidate will enter truly uncharted territory, potentially needing to win up to 64 percent of the white vote just to break 50 percent of the popular vote.

The Electoral College makes the GOP’s task even more difficult. Although Obama only won the popular vote by a modest 3.9 points, he carried the tipping-point states of Colorado and Pennsylvania by more substantial 5.4 point margins. In both states, as well as somewhat more conservative Virginia, the GOP’s chances hinge on their ability to improve in the affluent, diverse, and well-educated suburbs around Denver, Philadelphia, and Washington. The alternative—even larger gains in the white, working-class Upper Midwest—could be trumped by a Democratic sweep of Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. And although much of the GOP’s energy has focused on improving their standing among Hispanic voters, even a huge, 20-point swing among Latinos wouldn’t flip any of these states.

These challenges demand change from the GOP. There isn’t a credible reason why the GOP can make the same arguments and expect a different result, at least after controlling for demographic and economic changes. Put differently: If the GOP asks the electorate to re-litigate last year's issues in 2016, and we assume 2012 economic conditions, they’ll lose by more than they did last November.

Not everyone seems to agree with this view. Critics counter that there’s no reason to think the GOP will blow a winnable election, since Romney's performance matched what economic-based models had anticipated. It’s entirely possible that the GOP matched the economic fundamentals in 2012, but it will need to adapt to prevent underperforming the fundamentals in the future. The fundamentals have predicted past elections because parties have done what’s necessary to capitalize on opportunities. Analysts should be open to the possibility that the GOP may need to make changes in order to capitalize on a bad economy in a future election.

It's also worth questioning whether the GOP indeed performed as anticipated. For most of the year, analysts agreed that the fundamentals favored Obama, but only marginally; a Romney win was always conceivable, especially given that fundamentals-based forecasts aren’t especially precise. In the end, the election wasn’t especially close. Take a look at this chart from Patrick Egan of New York University, which shows the relationship between the incumbent party’s performance in presidential elections and GDP growth during an election year.1

The chart convincingly shows a relationship between economic growth and the incumbent party’s performance, but it also shows considerable uncertainty. Notice, for instance, that economic growth was similar in 2000 and 1988, but Bush won by 8 points while Gore didn’t even win the popular vote by 1 point. Now look at 2012. Obama won reelection with less economic growth than losing incumbents like Gerald Ford or George H.W. Bush. Despite this, Obama won reelection by nearly twice as much as George W. Bush. Other economic indicators might manage to reconcile these apparent contradictions, but those efforts tend to include the president’s approval rating or are in danger of over-fitting, where variables are selected to fit past results—explaining the noise but not the signal, as Nate Silver might put it. So did Republicans match the fundamentals? Perhaps. But between the uncertainty in pinpointing expectations and the fact that Obama cleanly won an election that he could have lost, it seems quite possible that Romney underperformed the fundamentals.

Some analysts also doubt whether the Obama coalition will outlast the president. It will: The changes in the electorate's composition over the last eight years represent a durable and lasting shift. With the exception of African Americans, the growth of the non-white share of the electorate was mainly due to demographic changes, not unusually high minority turnout rates. In 2012, whites represented just 71 percent of the voting eligible population, down from 76 percent in 2004. The white share of the electorate declined at an identical pace, from 77 percent in 2004 to 72 percent in 2012. Indeed, if non-white turnout rates fell from 2008 to 2004 levels, the 2012 electorate still would have been incrementally more diverse than it was in 2008. According to data from the 2008 and 2004 Current Population Survey’s November Supplement, the difference between ’04 and ’08 turnout rates only influenced the white share of the electorate by 1.5 percentage points. The Census has not released the data for the 2012 election, but the 2016 electorate will probably be more diverse than it was in 2012, even if racial groups turn out at ’04 rates.

RCP's Sean Trende argues that lower white turnout, not demographic change, is primarily responsible for the decline in the white share of the electorate between 2008 and 2012. White turnout rates were probably lower in 2012 than 2008, but it’s unclear whether Democrats profited—and if so, by how much. First, there isn’t much data yet on the composition of the 2012 electorate. The November supplement of the Current Population Survey isn’t out yet, and neither are the final exit poll numbers. If the revisions to the final exits are as significant as they were in 2008, it could reduce the number of “missing” white voters by as much as a third. Second, there’s not much reason to assume that the missing white voters would have broken overwhelmingly in Romney’s direction. Overall, white voters selected Romney by a 20-point margin; if the missing white voters broke similarly, then Romney would have netted 1.2 million votes—reducing Obama’s lead of five million votes, but certainly not coming close to eliminating it. Third, turnout stayed high in the battleground states, so there probably weren’t many missing votes where it counted most. Obama’s strength in the battleground states also indicates that the missing white voters didn’t break overwhelmingly in the direction of Republicans: If the decline in white turnout was primarily among Republicans, then Obama should have struggled in the battlegrounds, where turnout was higher.

Trende also argues that the GOP could potentially withstand demographic change with additional gains among white voters. Obama, after all, did worse among white voters than any Democrat since Walter Mondale in 1984, and Democratic gains in Colorado and Virginia, Trende observes, have been offset by Republican gains in formerly competitive states like Kentucky, West Virginia, Missouri, and Arkansas. 

These points don’t withstand scrutiny. Although Republicans made gains among white voters nationally, they didn’t make gains outside of the South and Appalachia. This hasn’t done much for their standing in the Electoral College, since their gains in the battleground states have been limited to sparsely populated stretches of northern Florida, southeastern Ohio, and western Pennsylvania. Only in Pennsylvania can the GOP claim that these gains have been sufficient to nudge a battleground state in their direction. At the same time, Obama did much better than John Kerry in well-educated suburbs, moving states like Virginia and Colorado into the Democratic column. It is often overlooked that Obama also did better among rural white voters outside of Appalachia and the South than Kerry or Al Gore. As a result, Obama consolidated the competitive states of the Upper Midwest and easily won two overwhelmingly white states carried by Bush—Iowa and New Hampshire. Similar gains in the farmland of northwestern Ohio and south-central Pennsylvania helped Obama counter losses in Appalachia. 

The Guardian’s Harry Enten posits another reason why generational change might not put as much pressure on Republicans, arguing that Democrats can’t count on younger voters. He contends that today’s young voters are Democratic because their formative political years were defined by Bill Clinton and the second Bush, while the next generation might only remember the more divisive Obama administration. As evidence, Enten points to an intriguing poll that showed Obama leading Romney among high school students by just 10 points. It’s certainly possible that the next group of young voters will be friendlier toward the GOP, but demographics all but ensure that Republicans will struggle to win them over: Fewer than 60 percent of today’s high school students are white. Moreover, young voters haven’t just replaced the “Greatest” generation, they’ve overwhelmed them—there were more 18-29 year old voters in 2012 than all voters over age 65, who are mainly of the more conservative “Silent” generation.                                                                                      

These demographic and generational changes will put pressure on the GOP to expand its appeal to groups and voters that haven’t supported Republicans in a long time. But how? John Sides argues that the GOP won’t need an “overhaul” or “reboot,” since voters considered Romney’s ideology closer to their own than Obama’s perceived liberalism. Similarly, many have observed that voters thought Romney would do better on the economy than the president, suggesting that the GOP’s stances on the issues weren’t the problem. But even if voters don’t directly see the GOP’s problem as a matter of ideology or policy, the voters do have problems with the GOP—and remedying those problems might require changes in policy. For instance, can the GOP address the concern that they don’t “favor the middle class” without building an economic agenda that actually helps the middle class?

Sides agrees that the GOP shouldn’t stand pat. Depending on what he means by “reboot,” it’s quite possible that something short of a total overhaul could put the party in position to succeed in 2016. Bill Clinton, for instance, mainly rebuilt the Democratic message and resolved a few problematic, but unessential wedge issues, like welfare reform. Perhaps the next GOP candidate’s rebranding effort will combine immigration reform with a Sister Souljah moment on cultural issues: “I believe in evolution, I support contraception, there’s no such thing as legitimate rape, I like science, I think climate change is real, and I’m willing to compromise.” But even if modest changes are sufficient to keep the GOP competitive in 2016, over the next two decades the party will face constant pressure to revise its positions. Just because the Democrats might not have a permanent majority doesn’t mean Republicans won’t need to change to avoid becoming a permanent minority.

  1. Note that Obama wound up winning 51.9 percent of the two-party vote, not 51.2 percent.