Sabato's Crystal Ball

What Would a Republican Renaissance Look Like?

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics January 17th, 2013

As you read this, the U.S. House Republicans are meeting in retreat at Williamsburg, VA. While some would argue this is a good choice of locale to get back to the Republic’s colonial roots and fundamental principles, others will say it augurs poorly for the GOP’s need to embrace the future with new ideas and rejuvenating initiatives.

In our new book on the 2012 elections, Barack Obama and the New America: The 2012 Election and the Changing Face of Politics (available here), we cover some of the challenges Republicans will need to overcome going forward. For instance, Nate Cohn of The New Republic — in his chapter on the country’s shifting demographics — makes the following observation about how the Republicans’ demographic advantage in midterm elections might be fading:

It is hard to say if or when minorities might begin to participate in midterm elections at higher rates. Even so, demographic changes are already diminishing the white share of the midterm electorate, which declined from 81 percent in 2002, to 79 percent in 2006 and 77 percent in 2010. At that pace, the GOP will face a midterm electorate reminiscent of 2008 in 2014 and more like 2012 by 2018. Of course, geography and redistricting combine to ensure that even a 2008-esque electorate and result might still maintain the GOP’s House majority. In fact, Romney carried a majority of House districts despite losing the national popular vote. Nonetheless, the decisive demographic advantage held by Republicans in midterm elections will fade to simply a relative advantage by the end of this decade.

If Republicans don’t understand the immediate past election, they are doomed to repeat it. Their base is shrinking steadily, and so far most conservative activists show little interest in broadening the base. A “bad candidate” explains everything. “Better targeting and social media” will cure everything.

But they won’t. And history proves it. Electoral trends are like ocean liners, and it takes a lot of ocean to reverse course.

— When Democrats went off the rails with economic populism in the 1890s, they refused to adapt and were the minority party for 26 years.

— When Republicans put their faith in old formulas to solve an unprecedented Great Depression, they refused to adapt and were in the wilderness for 20 years, and then a distinct minority for another 20.

— When Democrats thought various forms of the New Deal would continue to keep them in power no matter how far left they strayed, they lost their edge — and a series of presidential elections beginning in 1980.

And now, Republicans insist that nothing’s fundamentally wrong despite having lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, despite having blown Senate control twice in a row, and despite having held onto the House even while losing the national House vote.

In fact, the occasional victory for the GOP cannot hide the fact that this country is fast heading into another era, not of two-party democracy, but a party-and-a-half system. And the GOP is the half a party.

Stuck between an unyielding right-wing that dominates the Republican U.S. House caucus and most primary electorates, and the November reality of a growing demographic-driven Democratic majority, Republicans are at best stuck in neutral. A good midterm in 2014 won’t change that.

There’s only one way out: To win over chunks of the voters that now reflexively choose Democrats. The alternative is a purified party that would rather be right than president, and will get its wish over and over.

This is part of the structural problem for Republicans. Do they hold fast to the current party platform, thereby pleasing existing constituencies, or do they strike out on some bold reformist pathways, risking partial or full alienation of this or that part of the 2012 party coalition? Should Republicans simply wait for events to turn the electorate back to them, or do they move first in redesigning messages and policies that fit the new American demographics?

If the answers were easy, Republicans would have already chosen their course.

So what’s your view? Write us at goodpolitics@virginia.edu or tweet us a suggestion or two. We’ll reprint the best ideas and comments in a week or two.