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Will the GOP double down on the white vote?

Some are arguing that the emphasis on attracting minorities is a mistake

Thomas F. Schaller

3:05 PM EDT, July 9, 2013

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Is the Republican Party destined to be a predominantly white party and, if so, is that electorally fatal?

After the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections in which, respectively, a record-high 26 percent and then a higher-still record 28 percent of all votes were cast by non-white Americans, so-called "establishment" Republicans finally began to fret openly about the GOP's national prospects in the face of the nation's rapidly changing demographics. This past March the national party issued its self-abnegating "Governing Opportunity Project," a post-election assessment of what ails the party along with proposed curatives.

Among the key problems — some critics would say the biggest problem — is the party's inability to attract support from non-whites, and particularly the growing Latino population. The conventional wisdom is the GOP is destined to near- and long-term minority status unless it figures out how to chip away at the 70 percent-plus majority support Democrats enjoy among Latinos, Asian Americans and African Americans. Might this conventional wisdom be wrong?

Since the election, RealClearPolitics.com's Sean Trende has played devil's advocate by suggesting that Republicans could actually restore themselves through some combination of boosting white turnout rates and maximizing the GOP's share of the white vote. This argument seems ludicrous, but let's consider it a moment.

Perhaps the most puzzling result from last November's election was that the share of the non-white vote went up, and Barack Obama's support among non-white voters also ticked up slightly, and yet the president won re-election by a smaller overall margin than in his 2008 initial election. This happened because Mr. Obama's support among white voters, and the white voter share, both fell between 2008 and 2012. The puzzling part is that overall turnout dropped between 2008 and 2012, and usually when turnout is lower the electorate becomes older and whiter, not younger and less white.

Enter Mr. Trende, who concludes that working-class white voters were under-motivated and under-mobilized by Republicans in 2012. He's right: They were. Lower turnout among white Americans was most prevalent in key swaths of the Northeast and Midwest, places where in theory Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor born to Michigan political royalty, ought to have done well.

Using different assumptions about the share of the non-white vote, Mr. Trende projects future presidential turnouts to show how Republican candidates might perform if the party focuses instead on boosting white voter turnout. There are white voter mobilization paths to victory.

But although Mr. Trende offers an interesting and important thought experiment, at the risk of tooting my own non-southern strategy thesis, the very problem of white voter dissatisfaction with the GOP is one of the consequences of the Republicans' short term-wise, long term-foolhardy southern strategy. Indeed, it may be that strategy's most punitive feature, for it has anchored the party to the country's most ideologically outlying region. The South is the most religiously and ideologically conservative region of the country, and the most hostile to government.

Working-class white voter dissatisfaction with the Republicans does not automatically imply their inevitable conversion into Democrats, of course. But even if full conversions — which count twice because a vote is subtracted from the Republicans' ledger and added to Democrats' — are unlikely, each Republican non-voter still subtracts one from the GOP total. And those subtractions can add up quickly, as 2012 proved.

In the Northeast, where Democrats enjoy comfortable victories in presidential contests, disaffected white voters may only hurt the GOP in down-ballot races. But elsewhere — especially in the Midwest and Southwest, to two most competitive regions during the past quarter century — the Republicans are experiencing losses from the presidency down to the county level.

The question isn't whether Mr. Trende is right that it's possible to double-down on a white voter mobilization and re-engagement strategy, a strategy Mr. Trende argues would be aided, not damaged, by the party's resistance to policies like immigration reform. The question is whether the technically possible is electorally probable.

I'm out of space to answer that question fully here. But suffice to say that if Republicans premise their recovery on a strategy of squeezing more from a shrinking demographic group, don't be surprised if that strategy continues to disappoint them as much as the Republicans have disappointed those white voters.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.