Republican consultant Terry Nelson, the field director for Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, says that party leaders eventually must, in effect, take the risk of confronting the GOP’s current coalition to build its next one. “The current coalition is hesitant to do the things we need to do,” he acknowledges. “But the math is not going to add up in the future for us if we continue to be overly reliant on the votes of white voters. Certainly at the presidential level, sticking with this position [on immigration] will eventually put Republicans in a permanent minority position.”
The other trend that unsettles Murphy, Schmidt, Nelson, and like-minded strategists is the persistent Republican weakness among college-educated white women. These women, many of them socially liberal and open to activist government, have broken toward the Democratic nominee in four of the past five presidential elections (they split almost evenly between Bush and Kerry in 2004). Obama carried a 52 percent majority of this group in 2008, far better than his performance among other whites. “This is a long-term problem for the Republican Party,” Nelson says.
The debate inside the GOP turns on whether it is possible to improve the party’s showing among these women without diluting its conservative consensus on social issues such as abortion and gay rights. Almost uniformly, Democrats are dubious that Republicans can regain much ground with upscale white women while holding those positions. Most Republican analysts, however, believe that moderating on social issues would provoke unacceptable tension with the party’s base of culturally conservative voters, especially evangelical Christians.
Ralph Reed, a veteran strategist who has spent his career navigating the intersection of Republican and evangelical Christian politics, is one of many party thinkers who maintain that the GOP must, and can, find ways to attract more women and minorities without repositioning itself on social issues.
“I don’t believe that the values that the party embodies in order to win the votes and support of evangelicals and faithful Catholics poses any kind of long-term obstacle to doing better in the future among women and minorities,” he says. “I know from previous elections that you can win suburban women without becoming pro-choice, and being pro-choice doesn’t necessarily win suburban women. It varies from election to election, but sometimes it can be national security, sometimes it can be economic security; other times it is education and the environment.”
This year’s election will provide an unusually acute real-world test of the competing Democratic and Republican theories. Romney’s campaign, convinced that it cannot win without reducing Obama’s advantage among upscale white women, has made a major push for them, stressing the sluggish economy and the increase in the government debt under Obama. After Romney’s strong performance in the first presidential debate, several polls, in fact, showed him making inroads among upscale white women (although other surveys disagreed). At the second presidential debate and in his advertising, Obama has responded with a fierce counterattack on issues such as pay equity, Romney’s call for defunding Planned Parenthood, his opposition to requiring employers to provide free contraception in health insurance, and his record on hiring women in Massachusetts. Most Democrats are confident that the increased attention to these questions will restore Obama’s advantages among white-collar women, and help him as well among working-class white women usually tougher for Democrats to attract. If Romney wins while muting the gender gap, Reed’s perspective will gain strength inside the GOP. But if a movement back toward Obama among women helps him repulse Romney’s breakthrough, internal questions about the GOP’s positioning on social issues could grow louder.
McGOVERN’S BELATED TRIUMPH
The growing ranks of college-educated women are one of several long-term demographic changes that underpin Democratic optimism about the years ahead, whatever happens next month. Obama and Democrats now run best among groups that are themselves growing in society, what I’ve called the coalition of the ascendant. This emerging coalition, which offers Democrats the prospect of a steadily expanding base, has three major components.
The most reliably Democratic piece is the expanding minority population. Using census data, Teixeira and William Frey recently calculated that the minority share of the eligible voter population in 2012 has increased to almost 29 percent. Although few strategists on either side expect minorities to represent that much of the actual vote, the trend toward greater minority participation seems inexorable.
The next key component is the giant “millennial generation,” born from about 1981 to 2002. (This group overlaps with the first because some 40 percent of millennials are nonwhite, double the percentage among seniors.) Nearly 60 million millennials will be eligible to vote this year, up from 40 million just four years ago, according to Morley Winograd and Mike Hais, senior fellows at the Democratic advocacy group NDN and authors of two books on the generation. Obama carried two-thirds of voters under 30 in 2008, and although polls show fissures in that support, he is still running much better with younger than with older voters.