Doubling Down on the White Man’s Party

Many political observers from both sides of the partisan barricades are genuinely puzzled that so many congressional Republicans seem willing, even eager, to court “demographic disaster” by opposing comprehensive immigration reform and thus reinforcing their party’s unsavory image among Latinos and Asian-Americans, who have been trending Democratic heavily even as they make up a steadily increasing percentage of the electorate. It’s common to argue they are being willfully irrational, under pressure from their “base,” or are privately scheming to find some way to let immigration reform be enacted even if they don’t vote for it themselves.

But it’s important to recognize that a lot of Republicans in and out of Congress don’t buy the basic premise that improved performance among minority voters is the best and only path to majority status. And a lot of them are reading, or are being influenced indirectly by, Sean Trende’s series of analytical columns at RealClearPolitics suggesting that the more obvious route to a Republican majority, at least over the next couple of decades, is to intensify the GOP’s appeal to white voters (see this Phyllis Schlafly comment last month for an example of the meme).

Immediately after the 2012 elections, Trende began arguing that the big story in the Obama/Romney contest was a major drop-off in white voting:

If we build in an estimate for the growth of the various voting-age populations over the past four years and assume 55 percent voter turnout, we find ourselves with about 8 million fewer white voters than we would expect given turnout in the 2008 elections and population growth.

Had the same number of white voters cast ballots in 2012 as did in 2008, the 2012 electorate would have been about 74 percent white, 12 percent black, and 9 percent Latino (the same result occurs if you build in expectations for population growth among all these groups). In other words, the reason this electorate looked so different from the 2008 electorate is almost entirely attributable to white voters staying home. The other groups increased their vote, but by less than we would have expected simply from population growth.

Trende quickly threw water on the idea–to which a lot of conservative readers might have immediately gone–that these “missing white voters” were southern evangelicals “discouraged” by Romney’s alleged moderation or his obvious Mormonism. In a subsequent article, published late last week, he was much more specific:

The drop in turnout occurs in a rough diagonal, stretching from northern Maine, across upstate New York (perhaps surprisingly, turnout in post-Sandy New York City dropped off relatively little), and down into New Mexico. Michigan and the non-swing state, non-Mormon Mountain West also stand out. Note also that turnout is surprisingly stable in the Deep South; Romney’s problem was not with the Republican base or evangelicals (who constituted a larger share of the electorate than they did in 2004).

For those with long memories, this stands out as the heart of the “Perot coalition.” That coalition was strongest with secular, blue-collar, often rural voters who were turned off by Bill Clinton’s perceived liberalism and George H.W. Bush’s elitism. They were largely concentrated in the North and Mountain West: Perot’s worst 10 national showings occurred in Southern and border states. His best showings? Maine, Alaska, Utah, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon and Minnesota.

This profile of the “missing white voters” of 2012–which is suggestive rather than definitive, since the Perot “coalition” Trende’s talking about arose a full two decades ago–will smell like catnip to those proposing some sort of conservative “populist” makeover for the GOP. And it would also reinforce the idea that being opposed to immigration reform might (a) not really cost the GOP votes they had no realistic chance of winning anyway, and (b) appeal in a positive way to the “missing white voters” who are reflexively nativist.

In his latest piece in the series, Trende tries to put his numbers together into a future scenario, as part of an argument that winning a higher percentage of Latino voters isn’t the exclusive GOP survival strategy it’s cracked up to be.

I’m not in a position at this point to challenge Trende’s projections for the different elements of the electorate, and do think he makes some dubious assumptions (e.g., that African-American turnout drops in 2009 and 2010 mean lower black turnout numbers in future presidential elections when Barack Obama isn’t on the ballot). But since I’m less interested in Trende’s data than in the meme that may emerge from over-simplistic repetition of his bottom line by conservative gabbers with a big ax to grind, the important thing is that he projects Republicans could win presidential elections from 2016 through 2040 by gradually increasing its percentage of the white vote (which of course will have to turn out to an extent that it did not in 2012) even if minority voters tilt even more heavily to the Democrats than they do today.

This really just illustrates an overlooked point. Democrats liked to mock the GOP as the “Party of White People” after the 2012 elections. But from a purely electoral perspective, that’s not a terrible thing to be. Even with present population projections, there are likely to be a lot of non-Hispanic whites in this country for a very long time. Relatively slight changes among their voting habits can forestall massive changes among the non-white population for a very long while.

You can imagine the interpretation many on the Right will impose on Trende’s numbers: If we racially polarize the country, we win! And from that point of view, killing off an immigration bill they hate anyway, and which they believe will just create more Democratic voters, is really a no-brainer, and just the first step towards the winning white party of the future. Be forewarned.

UPDATE: As commenter pyrocantha51 suggests, one weakness of Trende’s analysis is the assumption that it will be possible to increase the GOP percentage of the white vote over time even as younger white people who are currently tilting Democratic become a larger segment of the electorate. Certainly a “polarization” strategy that leans right on cultural issues would be perilous among young white voters.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.