It’s good to see that progressives writers looking at Sean Trende’s provocative work on the implications of the “missing white voter” theory of 2012 are being a little more rigorous than conservatives readers. The latter are quite naturally tending to skip over Trende’s suggestions that it may be necessary to abandon conservative orthodoxy on economic issues to appeal to these voters, and instead celebrating the planted axiom that they can stay the same or move right (and white!) and win. But the former, like TNR’s Nate Cohn, are drawing some even more troubling lessons from the numbers Trende is highlighting.
In a post today Cohn accepts Trende’s analysis of the relative value (in the short term, at least) of white and Latino voters, particularly in purple states. But he challenges the idea that white gains for the GOP are a lively prospect outside the Deep South and fossil fuel producing states, and more importantly, a dumbed down version of Trende’s argument that holds Republicans can avoid difficult (and base-upsetting) choices by focusing on white voters.
Reversing the anti-GOP trend among non-southern white voters will probably require changes in messaging or policy, probably by moderating on both economic and cultural issues. The Electoral College encourages the GOP to make gains across a diverse swath of swing states, and they need to push back against the equally diverse Democratic attacks that have hobbled the GOP: the attacks on cultural issues that hurt Republicans around Denver, Washington, and Columbus; the depiction of the GOP as the party of the elite, which has hurt the GOP just about everywhere; and yes, the challenges immigration reform poses in Las Vegas, Denver, Orlando-Kissimmee, and Miami.
There’s a separate problem posed by the Democratic leanings of young white voters, who are already displacing the “Greatest Generation” voters who have been trending rapidly Republican as they enter their late-retirement years. These leanings were reduced between 2008 and 2012, but they are still enough to exert a strong counter-trend among white voters generally, and there are factors–e.g., the rapidly rising secularism of young white voters–that could make opposition to today’s GOP unusually persistent.
In all my writings on this subject, I’ve stressed the fact that the contemporary conservative movement–and particularly its increasingly dominant “constitutional conservative” wing–is unusually resistant to changes in its ideology, policies and messaging, for the rather obvious reason that they believe in a fixed, timeless government model located somewhere in the 1920s that reflects not only the Founders’ design but a divine imperative communicated through the Declaration of Independence, natural law, and scripture. So of course they will look high and low for evidence that they don’t have to “change to win,” and even if that pursuit fails, they’ll argue for holding out for a perfect electoral storm to avoid any compromise in their “conservative principles.” That’s why the kind of debate launched by Sean Trende and other empirically based Republican-oriented analysts needs to go deeper than the casual perusal of headlines that reinforce some of the GOP’s worst prejudices. Republicans do need to change to win, and at best have a choice of the kind of changes–even if they look like poison to constitutional conservatives–they must undertake.