Looking at the landscape through a demographic lens

LOOKING AT THE LANDSCAPE THROUGH A DEMOGRAPHIC LENS…. Ron Brownstein has one of the week’s must-read pieces in National Journal, looking at “The Next America.” The analysis covers one of the issues that likely keeps Republican strategists up at night: national demographic changes that are happening even faster than many expected.

The larger trends are probably pretty familiar to most — the country’s minority population is growing and making America more racially and ethnically diverse. Politically, this creates important challenges for the Republican Party, which is overwhelmingly white, and important opportunities for the Democratic Party, which enjoys far broader support among minority communities.

Three years ago, President Obama won an impressive victory — with the highest popular vote percentage of any candidate of either party in 20 years, and the highest for a non-incumbent in a half-century — but he did so with only 43% of the white vote. As demographic changes unfolding “ahead of schedule,” as Brownstein put it, the president will seek re-election next year needing even less support from white voters to do just as well electorally.

With this in mind, Brownstein and National Journal started running some simulations.

First, we looked at the average annual increase in the state-by-state minority share of the voting-age population from 2000 through 2010 and projected that forward two years to produce an estimate of each state’s total nonwhite population in the 2012 election year. Then we estimated how that population increase would affect the minority share of the vote in each state, using the relationship between the two variables in 2008 as a guide. (We assumed that for each state, the minority share of the vote in 2012 would equal the same proportion of the total minority population as it did in 2008.)

Once we established an estimated minority share of the vote for each state in 2012, we ran two simulations. One projected that Obama would win the same share of minority voters in each state that he did in 2008; the other assumed that he would lose 10 percent of his previous minority share. (That scenario approximates the falloff between the 80 percent of minorities that Obama won in 2008, and the 73 percent that Democrats captured in 2010, according to the exit polls.) In each case, we then calculated the share of the white vote that Obama would need to win each state.

The exercise shows that, compared with 2008, the road would bend toward Obama, at least slightly, just about everywhere. […]

Obama, for instance, won Florida last time with 42 percent of the white vote; under this scenario, if he maintains his minority support he could win the Sunshine State with just under 40 percent of the white vote. With equal minority support in Nevada, the president could win with only 35 percent of the white vote, down from the 45 percent he garnered in 2008. Likewise, under these conditions, Obama could take Virginia with just 33.5 percent of whites, well down from the 39 percent he captured last time. In New Jersey, his winning number among whites would fall to just over 41 percent (compared with the 52 percent he won in 2008). In Pennsylvania, under these circumstances, 41 percent of white votes would be enough to put the state in Obama’s column, down from the 48 percent he won in 2008.

In theory, the target list could conceivably even expand to include “red” states with quickly growing minority populations, such as Georgia, Arizona, and Texas. Even if those states aren’t likely pick-ups, the demographics may force the Republican ticket to invest in these states, which they would otherwise expect to take for granted.

The GOP is definitely aware of all of this. The next question is what Republicans plan to do about it.

In light of Brownstein’s analysis, and the fact that the GOP will need to “win an implausibly high percentage of whites to prevail” in 2012, while Dems rely on heavy minority turnout, Adam Serwer expects some very ugly campaign tactics in the very near future.

The Republican Party had a choice after 2008. They could continue to rely on a dwindling but still decisive share of the white vote to prevail, or they could try to bring more minorities into the party. While I’m not entirely sure how much of the decision was made by party leaders and how much is merely the unprecedented influence of Fox News, but whether it’s pseudo scandals of the past two years, from birtherism to the NBPP case, the GOP’s nationwide rush to ban sharia and institute draconian immigration laws, or characterizing nearly every administration policy as reparations, the conservative fixations of Obama’s first term indicate that the GOP will end up relying at least in part on inflaming white racial resentment to close the gap. If Obama can’t mobilize as many minority voters as last time, he’ll have to make up the difference by picking up more white votes in those Rust-Belt swing states — giving the GOP even more reason to make Obama unpalatable to them. […]

The personal qualities of whoever gets the Republican nomination probably won’t matter. While McCain, to the chagrin of many Republican strategists, notably avoided dragging the views of Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, into the contest last time around, the next Republican nominee won’t have much of a choice, because the GOP has spent most of the past two years alienating minority constituencies.

Jon Chait doesn’t see it that way.

If Republicans can’t increase their share of the non-white vote, they’ll need to ramp up their share of the white vote. Now, I assume they’ll try to increase their share of the non-white vote, primarily Latinos.

But assume they don’t do that. Assume they try to make up the gap entirely among white voters. That means they need to flip some white voters who supported Obama in 2008. How do you do that — through a campaign of cultural division? Well, maybe, but remember these are voters on whom that didn’t work in 2008, when Obama was more unfamiliar and potentially scarier. It seems to me that, if you’re looking to pull in whites who voted for Obama in 2008, you need centrist issues, not right-wing issues. That probably means running on the economy and the debt, right.

Basically, I don’t see how an electorate tilting leftward, and more heavily minority, shows that the GOP is going to delve further into right-wing culture war politics. That’s how Republicans might respond to an electorate with a rising proportion of white working class voters, but these circumstances are just the opposite.

Chait’s pitch makes perfect sense, but I don’t think Republicans embrace the same kind of reason. After all, GOP strategists have seen these demographic shifts coming, and know full well what they’re up against in 2012. But the party hasn’t, and perhaps can’t, change course. For more than two years now, Republicans at multiple levels have not only railed against immigrants, but have invested in right-wing obsessions with racial and ethnic undertones — Park51, the New Black Panther Party, Birther nonsense, Fox News’ coverage of “liberation theology” — all with the intention of scaring the bejesus out of white people.

It would make sense for Republicans to consider Chait’s reasoning, but the GOP has already jumped head first into “right-wing culture war politics,” and I’m hard pressed to imagine how the party can sharply change direction now, even if it wanted to.