Sabato's Crystal Ball

Beyond 2010: Demographic Change and the Future of the Republican Party

Alan I. Abramowitz, Senior Columnist March 11th, 2010

Less than 16 months after an election in which Republicans lost the presidency along with 8 Senate seats and 21 House seats, giving Democrats full control of the federal government for the first time since 1995, the GOP appears poised to make substantial gains in the 2010 midterm elections. In the aftermath of Republican Scott Brown’s shocking victory in a special Senate election in Massachusetts a number of prominent political forecasters including The Crystal Ball’s Larry Sabato believe that Democrats could lose at least 25 House seats and 5 Senate seats in November. And those numbers will probably go even higher if the U.S. economy fails to show meaningful growth in the months ahead or President Obama’s poll numbers fall much further. A Republican takeover of one or both chambers of Congress now looks like much less of a long shot than it did just a few weeks ago. Indeed, the closely followed pollster.com average currently shows a generic Republican defeating a generic Democrat for Congress by about 2 percentage points—a dramatic reversal from the large Democratic advantage on this question in both 2006 and 2008.

Given these trends, it is not surprising that many Republican leaders and activists are feeling a newfound sense of optimism about their party’s future. Recent election results, improved polling numbers and the energy coming from the conservative Tea Party movement have reinforced the view of some Republican strategists that the surest way for the GOP to regain its majority status is to stand up strongly for smaller government, lower taxes, and less government regulation of business and to vigorously opposing policies such as health care reform and cap-and-trade that would expand the role of the federal government in the economy.

The Tea Party movement, with its emphasis on strict adherence to conservative principles and its strong backing from Fox News and prominent right wing talk show hosts, has put additional pressure on Republican leaders to avoid any appearance of cooperation with President Obama or Democratic congressional leaders. GOP office-holders or candidates who take moderate positions or hint at any willingness to cooperate with Democrats now risk being challenged in Republican primaries by conservative Tea Party backed candidates.

The question all of this raises is whether strict adherence to conservative principles and refusal to cooperate with Democrats represent a viable long-term strategy for the Republican Party in a nation that is facing severe domestic and foreign policy challenges and undergoing profound shifts in the make-up of its population. While Republican prospects appear bright in the near term, there are storm clouds looming on the horizon: electoral and Census data show that Hispanics, African-Americans, and other nonwhites will make up an increasing share of the American electorate in the future while the GOP’s traditional base of conservative whites will continue to shrink.

The effects of demographic change were readily apparent in the results of the 2008 presidential election. Barack Obama’s decisive victory over John McCain was due in large measure to the gradual transformation of the American electorate over the previous two decades. The data displayed in Table 1 show that Obama’s overwhelming support by nonwhites, who comprised over a fourth of the electorate, was crucial to his success. Despite losing to John McCain among non-Hispanic whites by a margin of more than 11 million votes, Obama won the election rather handily by carrying nonwhites by a margin of more than 21 million votes. In this regard, Obama’s path to victory was very different from that of the previous Democratic President, Bill Clinton. Clinton owed his victory largely to his strong showing among white voters—Clinton lost the white vote only narrowly in both 1992 and 1996 which was a dramatic improvement on the performance of previous Democratic nominees. In contrast, Obama lost the white vote by a wide margin in 2008 but easily won the election by piling up huge leads among African-Americans, Hispanics, and other nonwhite voters. If the racial composition of the electorate had been the same in 2008 as in 1992, John McCain would have won by a fairly comfortable margin.

Table 1. Democratic Margin in Millions of Votes by Race, 1992-2008


Source: National Exit Polls

Obama’s overwhelming margin among nonwhite voters was based to some extent on his unique appeal as the first African-American presidential nominee of a major party and an effective GOTV effort in minority communities. However, his victory would not have been possible if it hadn’t been for the dramatic changes in the racial composition of the U.S. population over the previous two decades. According to data from national exit polls, the nonwhite share of the electorate doubled between 1992 and 2008, going from 13 percent to 26 percent. The increase between 2004 and 2008 was in line with the overall rate of increase during this period.

Evidence from both the 2008 exit poll and the Census Bureau’s 2007 Current Population Survey indicate that the nonwhite share of the electorate is likely to continue growing for the foreseeable future due to generational replacement. According to the exit poll data, nonwhites made up 39 percent of voters under the age of 30 and 34 percent of voters under the age of 45 in 2008 compared with only 19 percent of voters over the age of 64. Moreover, the Census Bureau data displayed in Table 2 show that the generational differences are even more dramatic when we examine the racial composition of the age cohorts that will be entering the electorate in the next decade. These data show that the younger the age group, the larger the proportion of nonwhites: nonwhites made up only 19 percent of those over the age of 64 in 2007 but 40 percent of those between the ages of 14 and 17, 43 percent of those between the ages of 5 and 13, and 46 percent of those under the age of 5.

Table 2. The Past and Future U.S. Electorate


Source: U.S. Census Bureau, July 2007

According to the data from the 2007 Current Population Survey, Hispanics are by far the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. While Hispanics comprised less than 7 percent of Americans over the age of 64, they were almost 24 percent of Americans under the age of 5. And it is very likely that the vast majority of Hispanics under the age of 5 were born in the United States. So while the percentage of Hispanics in the electorate will probably continue to lag behind the percentage in the overall population, this gap is likely to decrease over time. According to the Census Bureau, Hispanics are already the largest minority group in the U.S. population. Within a few years, possibly as soon as 2012, Hispanics will pass African-Americans and become the largest minority group in the U.S. electorate.

Based on the data from the Current Population Survey and the 1992-2008 national exit polls, I have calculated the expected racial composition of the U.S. electorate in the 2012, 2016, and 2020 presidential elections. The results of these projections are displayed in Figure 1. According to these projections, the nonwhite share of the U.S. electorate will grow from 26 percent in 2008 to approximately 34 percent in 2020 with most of this growth occurring in the “other nonwhite” category which includes Hispanics. Of course the percentages for 2012-2020 are only projections. The actual results for any given election will depend on the national political climate as well as the presidential candidates and their campaigns. However, the demographic trends evident in both sets of data make it virtually certain that the nonwhite share of the electorate will continue to grow for the next several election cycles.

Figure 1. Nonwhite Share of U.S. Electorate, 1992-2020


Source: Exit poll data for 1992-2008, author’s projections for 2012-2020

The increase in the nonwhite share of the electorate over the next decade will have major consequences for electoral competition. If the Democratic Party is able to maintain anything close to the overwhelming advantage among nonwhite voters that it enjoyed in 2008, Republican candidates will need to win a considerably larger share of the white vote than their party’s candidates did in 2008 or even 2004 in order to remain competitive in national elections. Under these circumstances, even a 60 percent share of the white vote would not be enough to give a Republican candidate a majority of the popular vote and the last Republican presidential candidate to win more than 60 percent of the white vote was Ronald Reagan in 1984.

An alternative path to victory for Republicans in future national elections would involve seeking to expand their Party’s support among nonwhite voters. By winning a larger share of the nonwhite vote, a Republican candidate could be elected with considerably less than 60 percent of the white vote. But this would require the GOP to move away from its conservative base and closer to the ideological center because nonwhite voters tend to be strong supporters of increased spending on social programs and activist government.

The gap in policy preferences between nonwhite voters and the current Republican base can be seen by comparing the opinions of these two groups on some questions about the role of government that were included in the 2008 American National Election Study (ANES). To represent the opinions of the GOP base I used respondents who reported voting in a Republican presidential primary or caucus during 2008.

The opinion gap between nonwhite voters and Republican primary voters was enormous. On every issue, the large majority of nonwhite voters chose the liberal (pro-government) position while the large majority of GOP primary voters chose the conservative (anti-government) position. For example, when respondents were asked to choose between two statements about the proper role of government, 78 percent of nonwhite voters, including 88 percent of African-American voters and 78 percent of Hispanic voters, chose the statement “there are more things government should be doing” while 78 percent of Republican primary voters chose the statement “the less government the better.”

Along the same lines, 65 percent of nonwhite voters, including 64 percent of African-American voters and 73 percent of Hispanic voters, supported the creation of a single-payer health care system in the United States compared with only 15 percent of Republican primary voters. And given a choice between more government services with higher taxes and fewer government services with lower taxes, 67 percent of nonwhite voters, including 67 percent of African-American voters and 68 percent of Hispanic voters, chose more government services with higher taxes compared with only 25 percent of GOP primary voters.

Immigration is another issue that is likely to prove challenging to Republicans hoping to improve their Party’s performance among the nation’s fasting growing ethnic group—Hispanics. Immigration reform is clearly a major concern for this group and according to the 2008 ANES, Hispanic voters favored an immigration policy that includes a path to citizenship for those now in the country illegally by a margin of 73 percent to 14 percent. In fact, white voters also supported such a policy although by a much closer margin of 49 percent to 36 percent. Even Republican primary voters only opposed providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants by a narrow 47 percent to 41 percent margin. Yet opposition to any reform plan that includes a path to citizenship has become almost mandatory for Republican candidates and office-holders in recent years due to the influence of right wing talk show hosts and anti-immigration activists. Even Republicans like John McCain who once strongly advocated such a policy have been forced to backtrack due to fear of being challenged from the right in a Republican primary.

Conclusions

The Republican Party today stands on the verge of a major political comeback. Americans are frustrated with the pace of economic recovery. President Obama’s approval rating has fallen from the mid-60s to the upper-40s and despite their large majorities in the House and Senate, congressional Democrats have been unable to deliver on some of their key policy commitments including health care reform. According to the latest projections, Republicans are likely to gain at least 25 seats in the House of Representatives and 5 seats in the Senate in the midterm election. A GOP takeover of one or both chambers is no longer inconceivable.

2010 is likely to be a very good year for Republicans. Yet there is a real danger that Republican leaders and strategists will interpret a strong showing in the midterm election as vindication for a strategy based largely on energizing the Party’s conservative white base. That base is indeed energized. But it is also shrinking due to the steady growth in the size of the nonwhite electorate. By 2020 nonwhites will probably make up over a third of the American electorate. Unless Republicans can expand their support among nonwhite voters, they will have to win a much larger share of the white vote than they have in any recent presidential election in order to remain competitive. However, increasing the Republican share of the nonwhite vote would require the GOP to move closer to the ideological center on issues such as government services, health care and immigration—a shift that would be certain to arouse intense opposition from conservative pundits and activists. Regardless of what happens in this year’s midterm elections, Republican leaders will soon face a difficult choice between reaching out to nonwhite voters or continuing to cater to their Party’s shrinking base.