Pence’s Problems a Preview of GOP’s Biggest 2016 Hurdle

Republicans used to trumpet social issues to their advantage in White House races. Now, they’d prefer to change the subject.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 31: Indiana Gov. Mike Pence speaks during a press conference March 31, 2015 at the Indiana State Library in Indianapolis, Indiana. Pence spoke about the state's controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act which has been condemned by business leaders and Democrats. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)
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Ronald Brownstein
April 1, 2015, 4 p.m.

In­di­ana Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Mike Pence has long been a big fish in con­ser­vat­ive circles. And this week he looked every bit the part, ra­ging and writh­ing like a shark caught in a net after the “Re­li­gious Free­dom Res­tor­a­tion Act” that he signed to cheers from so­cial con­ser­vat­ives pro­voked a furi­ous back­lash, not only from gay-rights and lib­er­al groups but pil­lars of In­di­ana’s busi­ness com­munity.

Pence’s ag­on­ies un­der­score the chal­lenge Re­pub­lic­ans face re­con­cil­ing the de­mands of their cul­tur­ally con­ser­vat­ive base with the evolving real­it­ies of an Amer­ica stead­ily grow­ing more di­verse, sec­u­lar, and tol­er­ant. That widen­ing gap may be the biggest obstacle to Re­pub­lic­an hopes of re­cap­tur­ing the White House next year.

Re­pub­lic­ans have many reas­ons for op­tim­ism about next year’s pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Since 1948, only once has one party held the White House for three con­sec­ut­ive terms. In Hil­lary Clin­ton, the Demo­crats have a pre­sumptive nom­in­ee who is tal­en­ted, ten­a­cious, and of­fers voters a chance to make his­tory, but is also older and prone to eth­ic­al con­tro­versy.

Voters once dis­il­lu­sioned by George W. Bush’s iron fist abroad are now show­ing enough doubts about Pres­id­ent Obama’s vel­vet glove that “Re­pub­lic­ans have de­veloped a lead on the na­tion­al se­cur­ity is­sue, which is a turn­around from four or five years ago,” says GOP poll­ster Kristen Solt­is An­der­son. On the eco­nomy, stag­nant wages for many work­ers could blunt the be­ne­fit Demo­crats might ex­pect from re­sur­gent job growth. Any of these dy­nam­ics might look dif­fer­ent by next year. But today, all of­fer Re­pub­lic­ans reas­on for hope.

(RE­LATED: Pence’s 2012 Op­pon­ent: Re­match In­terest “Heightened” by In­di­ana Re­li­gious Free­dom Con­tro­versy)

Yet with the In­di­ana re­li­gious-free­dom law, Pence det­on­ated what could be the biggest land mine fa­cing his party in 2016: the sense that the GOP wants to re­verse the cul­tur­al and demo­graph­ic changes re­lent­lessly re­mak­ing Amer­ica. Mul­tiple cul­tur­al is­sues—leg­al­iz­ing same-sex mar­riage, re­quir­ing busi­nesses to serve gay cus­tom­ers, pre­serving gay rights in the work­place, man­dat­ing that em­ploy­ers in­clude con­tra­cep­tion in health in­sur­ance, leg­al­iz­ing un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants, and main­tain­ing leg­al abor­tion—all now sharply di­vide the parties and align the pub­lic along con­sist­ent demo­graph­ic and ideo­lo­gic­al lines. (Though not a so­cial is­sue, the de­bate over trans­ition­ing from fossil fuels to fight cli­mate change splits the parties and pub­lic in very sim­il­ar ways.)

Across these is­sues, Demo­crats rep­res­ent the groups and in­terests most com­fort­able with change—what I’ve called a “Co­ali­tion of Trans­form­a­tion” re­volving around minor­it­ies, white-col­lar whites (es­pe­cially col­lege-edu­cated and single wo­men), and the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion. Re­pub­lic­ans now rely heav­ily on the groups most un­settled by these trends. This GOP “Co­ali­tion of Res­tor­a­tion” cen­ters on older, blue-col­lar, re­li­giously de­vout, and non­urb­an whites.

Those groups dis­play con­sid­er­ably more un­ease about cul­tur­al and demo­graph­ic change than oth­er voters—even young­er and more up­scale Re­pub­lic­ans. In polling last year by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, about three-fifths of all Amer­ic­ans agreed that so­ci­ety should ac­cept ho­mo­sexu­al­ity; about the same num­ber said the grow­ing num­ber of im­mig­rants “strengthens Amer­ic­an so­ci­ety.” Even most Re­pub­lic­ans who are col­lege-edu­cated or young­er than 50 en­dorsed those ver­dicts. But, in each case, most Re­pub­lic­ans who are either blue-col­lar or 50-plus ex­pressed a neg­at­ive view about the change. And those voters are in­creas­ingly cent­ral to the party’s for­tunes.

Pence’s struggles power­fully il­lus­trate the dif­fi­culty of sat­is­fy­ing that dis­af­fected base without pro­ject­ing in­tol­er­ance about big so­cial changes that most Amer­ic­ans now ac­cept. Even as Pence and his le­gis­lat­ive al­lies moved to­ward a qual­i­fied re­treat this week, vir­tu­ally every ma­jor 2016 GOP con­tender felt com­pelled to sup­port In­di­ana’s ori­gin­al bill.

(RE­LATED: How In­di­ana’s “Re­li­gious Free­dom” Law Turned In­to a Na­tion­wide Polit­ic­al Storm)

That stam­pede un­der­scored how little flex­ib­il­ity the 2016 can­did­ates feel to con­front the GOP con­stitu­en­cies res­ist­ant to so­cial change; even Jeb Bush, who has oth­er­wise urged “re­spect” for same-sex couples, quickly fell in­to line over In­di­ana. (Bush then fuzzed his po­s­i­tion at Sil­ic­on Val­ley fund-raiser­Wed­nes­day by in­dic­at­ing qual­i­fied sup­port for re­vis­ing the law.) Apart from Bush, the oth­er lead­ing con­tenders have also already un­der­scored op­pos­i­tion to provid­ing un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants a path­way to cit­izen­ship. No lead­ing can­did­ate is likely to back man­dat­ing em­ploy­ers to in­clude con­tra­cep­tion in health in­sur­ance, as Pres­id­ent Obama has re­quired.

Demo­crats face their own cul­tur­al di­vi­sions, be­cause more Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans and His­pan­ics than up­scale whites hold con­ser­vat­ive po­s­i­tions on some so­cial is­sues, like gay mar­riage. But the groups in the Demo­crats’ “Co­ali­tion of Trans­form­a­tion” all mostly wel­come the bois­ter­ous mod­ern re­mix­ing of Amer­ica’s iden­tity—and they re­main among the elect­or­ate’s fast­est-grow­ing com­pon­ents. That’s why, as An­der­son notes, Demo­crats “feel they have the wind at their back” on so­cial dis­putes and are likely to seek new con­front­a­tions “every couple of weeks between now and 2016” that il­lu­min­ate their cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences with the GOP.

In that way, In­di­ana’s im­broglio traces a clos­ing circle. From Richard Nix­on through Ron­ald Re­agan and George H.W. Bush, Re­pub­lic­ans es­cal­ated most cul­tur­al clashes, con­fid­ent that such col­li­sions would help them dis­lodge so­cially-con­ser­vat­ive whites from the Demo­crats. Those voters anchored the Re­pub­lic­an dom­in­ance of the White House from 1968 through 1992. But while those tra­di­tion­al­ist voters still un­der­pin the GOP’s con­gres­sion­al strength, as the coun­try has grown more di­verse and cul­tur­ally tol­er­ant, they no longer rep­res­ent a win­ning pres­id­en­tial race co­ali­tion. As In­di­ana shows, fear of ali­en­at­ing the voters who built their last dur­able pres­id­en­tial ma­jor­ity is pre­vent­ing Re­pub­lic­ans from tak­ing steps that might help them con­struct a new one.

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