Bad Bet: Why Republicans Can’t Win With Whites Alone

Obama lost key groups of white voters by the largest margins since the 1980s, but that doesn’t mean Republicans can rely on whites to retake the White House.

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, addresses the crowd during a campaign event at the Waukesha County Expo Center, Sunday, Aug. 12, 20102, in Waukesha, Wis. 
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Ronald Brownstein
Sept. 5, 2013, 4:20 p.m.

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This much is un­dis­puted: In 2012, Pres­id­ent Obama lost white voters by a lar­ger mar­gin than any win­ning pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate in U.S. his­tory. In his reelec­tion, Obama lost ground from 2008 with al­most every con­ceiv­able seg­ment of the white elect­or­ate. With sev­er­al key groups of whites, he re­cor­ded the weak­est na­tion­al per­form­ance for any Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee since the Re­pub­lic­an land­slides of the 1980s. 

In 2012, Obama won a smal­ler share of white Cath­ol­ics than any Demo­crat since Jimmy Carter in 1980; lost groups ran­ging from white seni­ors to white wo­men to white mar­ried and blue-col­lar men by the widest mar­gin of any Demo­crat since Ron­ald Re­agan routed Wal­ter Mondale in 1984; and even lost among Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing col­lege-edu­cated wo­men by the widest mar­gin since Mi­chael Duka­kis in 1988, ac­cord­ing to the latest Na­tion­al Journ­al ana­lys­is of the trends that shape the al­le­gi­ances of Amer­ic­an voters. 

And yet, be­hind rous­ing sup­port from minor­it­ies every­where, and of­ten much more com­pet­it­ive show­ings among whites in both Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing and battle­ground states, Obama not only won reelec­tion but won fairly com­fort­ably. 

Few de­cisions may carry great­er con­sequences for the Re­pub­lic­an Party in 2016 than how it in­ter­prets these facts. The key ques­tion fa­cing the GOP is wheth­er Obama’s 2012 per­form­ance rep­res­ents a struc­tur­al Demo­crat­ic de­cline among whites that could deep­en even fur­ther in the years ahead — or a floor from which the next Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee is likely to im­prove.

In re­cent months, a chor­us of con­ser­vat­ive ana­lysts has bet on the first op­tion. They in­sist that Re­pub­lic­ans, by im­prov­ing both turnout and already-gap­ing mar­gins among whites, can re­cap­ture the White House in 2016 without re­for­mu­lat­ing their agenda to at­tract more minor­ity voters — most prom­in­ently by passing im­mig­ra­tion-re­form le­gis­la­tion that in­cludes a path­way to cit­izen­ship for those here il­leg­ally. On the oth­er side is an ar­ray of Re­pub­lic­an strategists who view minor­ity out­reach and im­mig­ra­tion re­form as crit­ic­al to restor­ing the party’s com­pet­it­ive­ness — and con­sider it sui­cid­al for the GOP to bet its fu­ture on the pro­spect that it can squeeze even lar­ger ad­vant­ages out of the di­min­ish­ing pool of white voters. Karl Rove, the chief strategist for George W. Bush’s two pres­id­en­tial vic­tor­ies, has noted that re­ly­ing en­tirely on whites would soon re­quire Re­pub­lic­ans to reg­u­larly match the tower­ing ad­vant­age Re­agan re­cor­ded among them when he lost only a single state in his 1984 reelec­tion. “It’s un­reas­on­able to ex­pect Re­pub­lic­ans to routinely pull num­bers that last oc­curred in a 49-state sweep,” Rove said at the As­pen Ideas Fest­iv­al this sum­mer.

The res­ults of pre­vi­ous elec­tions can’t fore­cast how voters will di­vide next time. But they do show clear trends in both the elect­or­ate’s com­pos­i­tion and the pref­er­ences that will shape the com­pet­i­tion between the parties in 2016 and bey­ond. To bet­ter un­der­stand these dy­nam­ics, Na­tion­al Journ­al has up­dated a pro­ject we con­duc­ted in 2008 and 2012 that ana­lyzed, in un­usu­al de­tail, the fault lines among Amer­ic­an voters. In those ini­tial re­ports, titled “The Hid­den His­tory of the Amer­ic­an Elect­or­ate,” we ex­amined the res­ults from the gen­er­al-elec­tion exit polls con­duc­ted by news or­gan­iz­a­tions in every pres­id­en­tial cam­paign from 1980 through 2008. In this latest re­port, we ex­pand the ana­lys­is to in­clude the res­ults of the na­tion­al and state 2012 Na­tion­al Elec­tion Pool exit poll con­duc­ted for a con­sor­ti­um of me­dia or­gan­iz­a­tions by Edis­on Re­search. The poll sur­veyed 26,565 voters at 350 polling places on Elec­tion Day, and an­oth­er 4,408 ab­sent­ee and early voters through a tele­phone sur­vey.

Be­cause the exit poll in­cludes so many more voters than a typ­ic­al sur­vey, this ef­fort al­lows us to ex­plore much more finely grained shifts among voters than are usu­ally avail­able — the evolving pref­er­ences, for in­stance, not only of His­pan­ics over­all but of those with and without col­lege de­grees, or the (sub­stan­tial) dif­fer­ences between col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men who are single and those who are mar­ried. The res­ult is a uniquely pan­or­amic look at the fluc­tu­at­ing bound­ar­ies of change and the in­sist­ent cur­rents of sta­bil­ity over the past nine pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. And that prism of­fers a unique per­spect­ive on the choices fa­cing the two parties as they be­gin con­tem­plat­ing their strategies for 2016.

Ini­tially most Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers viewed Obama’s reelec­tion as a demo­graph­ic wake-up call for their party. They did so with good reas­on. Des­pite the lackluster eco­nomy, Obama sur­prised many ob­serv­ers by win­ning 51 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote, gar­ner­ing 332 Elect­or­al Col­lege votes, and out­polling Mitt Rom­ney by nearly 5 mil­lion bal­lots. The pres­id­ent’s vic­tory meant that Demo­crats had car­ried the pop­u­lar vote in five of the pre­vi­ous six pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, match­ing the Re­pub­lic­an re­cord from 1968 to 1988. Obama notched strik­ing gains among both His­pan­ics and Asi­an-Amer­ic­ans, equaled the over­all 80 per­cent of non­white voters that he car­ried in 2008, and amassed a sol­id 60 per­cent ma­jor­ity among voters un­der 30 (who are them­selves heav­ily di­verse). Al­though many Re­pub­lic­an ana­lysts pre­dicted Obama could not rep­lic­ate the en­thu­si­asm he gen­er­ated in 2008, minor­it­ies and young people both in­creased their share of the over­all vote, as whites fell to 72 per­cent of the elect­or­ate, the low­est level ever. All of this al­lowed Obama to win his un­ex­pec­tedly com­fort­able vic­tory, even though his per­form­ance among white voters de­teri­or­ated from 43 per­cent in 2008 to just 39 per­cent in 2012. Rom­ney, by win­ning 59 per­cent of whites, roughly equaled the best per­form­ances ever among them by a Re­pub­lic­an chal­lenger (es­sen­tially match­ing Dwight Eis­en­hower in 1952 and George H.W. Bush in 1988) and ac­tu­ally ex­ceeded the 56 per­cent of whites that Re­agan won in 1980 (al­though not the 64 per­cent peak the Gip­per reached dur­ing his reelec­tion tsunami). 

Num­bers such as these promp­ted the “Growth and Op­por­tun­ity” in­tern­al re­view com­mis­sion, which Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee Chair­man Re­ince Priebus ap­poin­ted after the 2012 elec­tion, to con­clude: “The na­tion’s demo­graph­ic changes add to the ur­gency of re­cog­niz­ing how pre­cari­ous our po­s­i­tion has be­come”¦. Un­less the RNC gets ser­i­ous about tack­ling this prob­lem, we will lose fu­ture elec­tions; the data demon­strates this.” That same con­cern about re­gain­ing ground among minor­ity voters, par­tic­u­larly His­pan­ics, en­cour­aged the par­ti­cip­a­tion of four Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors (led by Flor­ida’s Marco Ru­bio) in the bi­par­tis­an Sen­ate “Gang of Eight” that began ne­go­ti­at­ing im­mig­ra­tion re­form.

But through 2013, the sense of demo­graph­ic ur­gency in­side the GOP has palp­ably dis­sip­ated. In­stead, an ar­ray of con­ser­vat­ive ana­lysts has ad­vanced a com­pet­ing the­ory for Rom­ney’s de­feat: He failed to gen­er­ate a big enough mar­gin among whites. Sean Trende, a writer for the con­ser­vat­ive-lean­ing web­site Real­Clear­Polit­ics, has pro­mul­gated the most com­pre­hens­ive ver­sion of this ar­gu­ment. Us­ing census fig­ures, Trende in­sists that Rom­ney failed to turn out about 5 mil­lion to 6.5 mil­lion white voters who should have voted, most of them “down­scale, North­ern, rur­al whites” demo­graph­ic­ally sim­il­ar to voters who flocked to Ross Perot in 1992. 

Though Trende heav­ily cross-stitched his pieces with caveats and qual­i­fic­a­tions, at bot­tom he ar­gued that Re­pub­lic­ans were less likely to re­cap­ture the White House by gain­ing among minor­it­ies than by im­prov­ing both turnout and vote-share among whites — which he sug­ges­ted could reach as high as 70 per­cent. “It seems a bit touchy to as­sume that Re­pub­lic­ans will max out at around 60 per­cent of the white vote,” he wrote. “This might be the case, but “¦ it’s en­tirely pos­sible that as our na­tion be­comes more di­verse, our polit­ic­al co­ali­tions will in­creas­ingly frac­ture along ra­cial/eth­nic lines rather than ideo­lo­gic­al ones”¦. I don’t see any com­pel­ling reas­on why these trends can’t con­tin­ue, and why a Re­pub­lic­an couldn’t be­gin to ap­proach Ron­ald Re­agan’s 30-point win with whites from 1984 in a more neut­ral en­vir­on­ment than Re­agan en­joyed.”

Trende’s piece has in­spired fierce and in­creas­ingly Talmud­ic ex­changes with Demo­crat­ic elect­or­al ana­lysts (who mostly have ar­gued that he con­fused an over­all de­cline in turnout rates from 2008 to 2012 with a par­tic­u­lar Re­pub­lic­an prob­lem among whites). But his ana­lys­is has be­come a ral­ly­ing cry for con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ists who re­ject the view that the 2012 res­ult proved that the party must ad­just its mes­sage to ap­peal to more minor­ity and young voters by, among oth­er things, en­act­ing im­mig­ra­tion re­form. 

Rich Lowry, ed­it­or of the Na­tion­al Re­view, and Wil­li­am Kris­tol, ed­it­or of The Weekly Stand­ard, crys­tal­lized that ar­gu­ment in Ju­ly when they penned an un­usu­al joint ed­it­or­i­al op­pos­ing the Sen­ate im­mig­ra­tion bill. “At the pres­id­en­tial level in 2016, it would be bet­ter if Re­pub­lic­ans won more His­pan­ic voters than they have in the past — but it’s most im­port­ant that the party per­form bet­ter among work­ing-class and young­er voters con­cerned about eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity and up­ward mo­bil­ity,” they wrote. “Passing this un­work­able, ram­shackle bill is coun­ter­pro­duct­ive or ir­rel­ev­ant to that task.” Talk-show host Steve Deace, a lead­ing Iowa con­ser­vat­ive, ob­served that “the real reas­on” Rom­ney lost was not his mea­ger per­form­ance with minor­it­ies but that he “did so poorly turn­ing out the GOP base.” The as­cent of this view in­side the GOP helps ex­plain why most House Re­pub­lic­ans have so firmly res­isted im­mig­ra­tion re­form — and why, after all of the Sen­ate’s bi­par­tis­an ne­go­ti­ation, just 14 of the 45 GOP sen­at­ors ul­ti­mately backed the im­mig­ra­tion le­gis­la­tion, nine few­er than sup­por­ted a sim­il­ar com­pre­hens­ive plan un­der Bush in 2006.

Can Re­pub­lic­ans bet their fu­ture primar­ily on the no­tion that the party can amass even big­ger ad­vant­ages with whites? The an­swer de­pends on two dis­tinct factors: turnout and vote-share. 

The past two elec­tions have offered Re­pub­lic­ans many en­cour­aging signs about their stand­ing with whites. In 2010, exit polls showed that Re­pub­lic­ans car­ried 60 per­cent of white voters in con­gres­sion­al races — their best show­ing ever, in both exit polls since the 1970s and in the Uni­versity of Michigan’s Amer­ic­an Na­tion­al Elec­tion Stud­ies tra­cing back to 1948. In 2012, while win­ning a com­par­able 59 per­cent among whites, Rom­ney dis­played dom­in­ant strength with groups that usu­ally tilt to­ward the GOP, par­tic­u­larly mar­ried, non­col­lege, and older whites. With some of these groups, the NJ ana­lys­is shows, Obama sank to depths Demo­crats haven’t ex­per­i­enced since the Re­agan and George H.W. Bush land­slides.

Obama, for in­stance, lost non­col­lege white men — once the brawny back­bone of the New Deal-era Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion — by a crush­ing 31 per­cent­age points, the widest de­fi­cit since 1984. He lost mar­ried white men and mar­ried white wo­men by the largest mar­gins for his party since 1984. He lost whites near­ing re­tire­ment by the widest mar­gin since 1988, and white seni­ors by the most since 1984. Among older work­ing-class whites (those without col­lege de­grees age 45 or older), he faced even lar­ger de­fi­cits than Mondale did against Re­agan. Like­wise, the ana­lys­is shows, Obama lost white Cath­ol­ics, once con­sidered per­haps the single most de­cis­ive swing group, by a lar­ger mar­gin (19 points) than Mondale did. Obama didn’t sink to re­cord de­fi­cits among two oth­er GOP-lean­ing groups — col­lege-edu­cated white men and non­col­lege white wo­men — but he lost each by around 20 per­cent­age points. 

Even among the por­tions of the white com­munity gen­er­ally open to Demo­crats, Obama’s per­form­ance flagged. After run­ning es­sen­tially even among single white men in 2008, he lost them by 8 points in 2012 — the party’s weak­est show­ing since 2000. His mar­gin among white single wo­men (or­din­ar­ily one of the Demo­crats’ best groups) fell from 19 per­cent­age points in 2008 to just 6 in 2012, the party’s smal­lest ad­vant­age since 1988. Like­wise, after car­ry­ing col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men his first time, Obama lost them in 2012 by 6 per­cent­age points, the party’s biggest de­fi­cit since 1988. His over­all de­fi­cit among white wo­men spiked to 14 per­cent­age points, double the level in 2008 and the biggest short­fall the party has faced since Mondale. Among whites young­er than 30, Obama fell from a 10-point ad­vant­age in 2008 to a 7-point loss in 2012. Among whites in house­holds with a uni­on mem­ber, the exit poll found, Obama edged Rom­ney by just 2 per­cent­age points.

Some of these res­ults look like harden­ing pat­terns. Rom­ney’s per­form­ance slightly stretched, but largely con­tin­ued, trends in which re­cent Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ees have av­er­aged huge ad­vant­ages among mar­ried white men (al­most 31 per­cent­age points since 2000); mar­ried white wo­men (more than 21 per­cent­age points since 2004); non­col­lege white men (over 27 points since 2000); col­lege white men (al­most 20 points since 2000); and non­col­lege white wo­men, the so-called wait­ress moms (19 points since 2004). As the Si­lent Gen­er­a­tion that came of age un­der Harry Tru­man and Dwight Eis­en­hower suc­ceeds the “GI Gen­er­a­tion” forged un­der Frank­lin Roosevelt, the polit­ic­al ori­ent­a­tion of white seni­ors has also clearly trans­formed: Al­though Bill Clin­ton car­ried white seni­ors in each of his two cam­paigns, a ma­jor­ity of them have voted Re­pub­lic­an in all four elec­tions since then, each time by a wider mar­gin. Rom­ney be­came the first GOP nom­in­ee since Re­agan in 1984 to cross the 60 per­cent threshold with this group. Re­pub­lic­ans look as well po­si­tioned with the older baby boomers near re­tire­ment.

Yet these ad­vant­ages, while com­mand­ing, can also provide Re­pub­lic­ans an ex­ag­ger­ated sense of com­fort. On both the turnout and mar­gin fronts, a whites-first strategy would face en­trenched, struc­tur­al chal­lenges. For Re­pub­lic­ans to in­crease the white share of the elect­or­ate in 2016 or bey­ond would re­quire them to re­verse the vir­tu­ally un­in­ter­rup­ted tra­ject­ory of the past three dec­ades. Ac­cord­ing to the NJ exit poll ana­lys­is, the white share of the total vote has de­clined in every elec­tion since 1980, ex­cept in 1992, when it ticked up to 88 per­cent (from 85 per­cent in 1988) amid the in­terest in Perot’s quirky third-party bid. Oth­er­wise, this de­cline has per­sisted through years of both high and low over­all turnout. Even in 2004, when George W. Bush’s state-of-the-art mi­crotar­get­ing and turnout op­er­a­tion al­lowed Re­pub­lic­ans to equal Demo­crats as a share of the total vote for the only time in the his­tory of polling, whites’ share dropped 4 per­cent­age points from 2000. Throughout 2012, many Re­pub­lic­ans an­ti­cip­ated that the white pro­por­tion of the vote would in­crease from 2008 and even quietly based their polling on that as­sump­tion; but, ul­ti­mately, the white share of the vote fol­lowed the long-term trend and fell to 72 per­cent — ex­actly the level that Obama cam­paign man­ager Jim Mess­ina pro­jec­ted early in the year. In a mirrored de­vel­op­ment, the minor­ity share of the vote rose to 28 per­cent, 2 per­cent­age points above 2008 and more than double the 12 per­cent level for Bill Clin­ton’s first vic­tory in 1992.

The chal­lenge for Re­pub­lic­ans hop­ing to re­verse these vot­ing trends is that they re­flect tec­ton­ic shifts in the over­all pop­u­la­tion. Al­though the change in the elect­or­ate has trailed the change in the total pop­u­la­tion, the two lines have moved in par­al­lel. From 1996 to 2012, ac­cord­ing to census fig­ures, the white share of the eli­gible vot­ing pop­u­la­tion (cit­izens who are older than 18) has dropped about 2 per­cent­age points every four years, from 79.2 per­cent to 71.1 per­cent; over that same peri­od, whites have de­clined as a share of ac­tu­al voters from 83 per­cent to 74 per­cent (ac­cord­ing to census fig­ures) or even 72 per­cent (ac­cord­ing to the exit polls). With minor­it­ies ex­pec­ted to make up a ma­jor­ity of Amer­ica’s 18 and young­er pop­u­la­tion in this dec­ade, all signs point to­ward a con­tin­ued de­cline in the white share of the eli­gible voter pop­u­la­tion — which sug­gests the GOP would have to mar­shal hero­ic turnout ef­forts to avoid fur­ther de­cline in the white vote-share. If the elect­or­ate’s com­pos­i­tion fol­lows the trend over the past two dec­ades, minor­it­ies would likely con­sti­tute 30 per­cent of the vote in 2016. 

With one ex­cep­tion, Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ees since the 1970s have shown only mod­est ap­peal to that grow­ing pop­u­la­tion. In both 2008 and 2012, Obama won a com­bined 80 per­cent of minor­ity voters. In fact, as ABC poll­ster Gary Langer notes, the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee has won between 78 per­cent and 82 per­cent of the two-party vote among non­whites in every elec­tion since 1976, ex­cept in 2004, when Bush’s strong minor­ity ap­peal held John Kerry to just 71 per­cent. 

The “Hid­den His­tory” ana­lys­is shows very few cracks in the Demo­crat­ic dom­in­ance among both Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and His­pan­ic voters in 2012. Even among groups in the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an com­munity in which Re­pub­lic­ans had dis­played at least some pres­ence from 1980 through 2004 — men, those with a col­lege edu­ca­tion, and those who are mar­ried — the GOP re­gistered little more than trace sup­port in each of the two con­tests against Obama. In each of his two races, Obama won an astound­ing 96 per­cent among Afric­an-Amer­ic­an wo­men, but the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee has reached at least 90 per­cent among these voters in every elec­tion since 2000. 

Like­wise, Rom­ney faced broad re­pu­di­ation from His­pan­ics. Obama won nearly two-thirds of His­pan­ic men and more than three-fourths of His­pan­ic wo­men. Each of those num­bers rep­res­en­ted the Demo­crats’ best per­form­ance since 1996. Obama slipped some­what from 2008 among mar­ried His­pan­ics, but he still ex­ceeded the Demo­crats’ two show­ings against George W. Bush. The only signs of en­cour­age­ment for Re­pub­lic­ans: Dur­ing the rout, Rom­ney gained ground from 2008 with col­lege-edu­cated His­pan­ic men (fall­ing just short of Bush’s level with them in 2004) and also at­trac­ted just over 40 per­cent of His­pan­ic Prot­est­ants, many of them evan­gel­ic­al so­cial con­ser­vat­ives. Still, Cath­ol­ics re­main the largest group among His­pan­ics, and among them Rom­ney drew only 21 per­cent, less than any GOP nom­in­ee since 1980 (ex­cept for Bob Dole in the three-way race of 1996).

All of these res­ults map the depth of the minor­ity-voter hole con­front­ing Re­pub­lic­ans — and the daunt­ing math they will face if they can’t re­cov­er at least some­what. If minor­it­ies reach 30 per­cent of the vote next time, and the 2016 Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee again at­tracts sup­port from roughly 80 per­cent of them, he or she would need to cap­ture only 37 per­cent of whites to win a ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­lar vote. In that scen­ario, to win a na­tion­al ma­jor­ity, the GOP would need al­most 63 per­cent of whites. Since 1976, the only Re­pub­lic­an who has reached even 60 per­cent among whites was Re­agan (with his 64 per­cent in 1984). Since Re­agan’s peak, the Demo­crat­ic share of the white vote has var­ied only between 39 per­cent (Obama in 2012 and Clin­ton in the three-way elec­tion of 1992), and 43 per­cent (Obama in 2008 and Clin­ton in 1996).

To shat­ter that band, and re­turn to the mar­gins among whites they en­joyed un­der Re­agan, Re­pub­lic­ans would need to over­come an­oth­er set of demo­graph­ic changes. Just as the over­all com­pos­i­tion of the coun­try is chan­ging, so is the nature of the white elect­or­ate. These changes are gen­er­ally dis­pla­cing white groups that vote over­whelm­ingly Re­pub­lic­an with white groups in which Demo­crats run more com­pet­it­ively. That dy­nam­ic makes the re­cent GOP per­form­ance among whites even more im­press­ive — but also shows the dif­fi­culty of climb­ing still fur­ther. The shifts are vis­ible across sev­er­al di­men­sions. Re­pub­lic­ans now re­li­ably run bet­ter among whites without a col­lege edu­ca­tion than those with at least a four-year de­gree. In 1984, those non­col­lege whites rep­res­en­ted 62 per­cent of the total vote, while col­lege-edu­cated whites con­sti­tuted just 27 per­cent. That meant work­ing-class whites rep­res­en­ted more than two-thirds of all white voters. But since then, ac­cord­ing to the exit polls, the share of the vote cast by those work­ing-class whites has de­clined in every elec­tion ex­cept 2000, hit­ting a low of 36 per­cent in 2012. Mean­while, the share of col­lege-edu­cated whites grew through the 1990s and has fluc­tu­ated in a nar­row range since. In 2012, the exit poll found, col­lege-edu­cated whites also cast 36 per­cent of the vote, mark­ing the first time they have equaled work­ing-class whites.

Sim­il­arly, every Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee since 1980 has run bet­ter among white wo­men than white men. While white men and wo­men rep­res­en­ted equal shares of the vote in 1984, in 2012 the wo­men (at 38 per­cent) out­voted the men (at 34 per­cent). Com­bin­ing edu­ca­tion and gender un­der­scores the point. Men without a col­lege edu­ca­tion have be­come the most re­li­ably Re­pub­lic­an com­pon­ent of the white elect­or­ate; wo­men with a col­lege de­gree are the most re­cept­ive to Demo­crats. In 1984, those blue-col­lar men cast nearly three times as many votes as the white-col­lar wo­men; in 2012, for the first time, the col­lege wo­men (at 19 per­cent) out­voted the non­col­lege men (at 17 per­cent). Giv­en that the share of white adults with at least a four-year de­gree has in­creased in every year since 1981 ex­cept two, and that wo­men are gar­ner­ing nearly three-fifths of those de­grees, this gap is likely to widen.

Mar­it­al status pushes in the same dir­ec­tion less dra­mat­ic­ally. Every Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee since 1980 has run bet­ter among single than mar­ried whites. In 1984, mar­ried couples rep­res­en­ted 70 per­cent of all white voters; by 2012, that num­ber slipped to 65 per­cent. (The de­cline has been es­pe­cially sharp among mar­ried white men, who have voted more Re­pub­lic­an than mar­ried wo­men in each elec­tion since 1984.) An­oth­er trend steep­en­ing the grade for the GOP is grow­ing sec­u­lar­iz­a­tion. Since 2000, Demo­crats have av­er­aged a 32-point ad­vant­age among whites who identi­fy with no re­li­gious tra­di­tion, and the share of them has in­creased from 15 per­cent in 2007 to 20 per­cent by 2012, ac­cord­ing to stud­ies by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter.

These shifts in the white elect­or­ate change each elec­tion al­most im­per­cept­ibly, like the slow melt­ing of an ice­berg. But over time they add up. “Every struc­tur­al change you are talk­ing about is mov­ing in the dir­ec­tion of whites im­prov­ing their votes for Demo­crats,” says Stan­ley B. Green­berg, the vet­er­an Demo­crat­ic poll­ster. “Big trends in the coun­try — what’s hap­pen­ing in edu­ca­tion, mar­riage, in the re­li­gious sphere — all point to an up­ward trend among whites.” Con­sider this hy­po­thet­ic­al. If Rom­ney had matched his 2012 per­form­ance among white men and wo­men with and without a col­lege de­gree, but those four groups still con­sti­tuted the same share of the white elect­or­ate as they did in 1984, Rom­ney’s total vote among whites would have edged up to around 61 per­cent. That was just about the level he needed to win the pop­u­lar vote. 

The ma­jor coun­ter­vail­ing force is that the share of whites in uni­on house­holds has stead­ily de­clined, and that white pop­u­la­tion is aging even as Re­pub­lic­ans have widened their ad­vant­ages with older whites. On the oth­er hand, with the Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing GI Gen­er­a­tion dwind­ling, the older white voters passing out of the elect­or­ate every four years are con­cen­trated in the Si­lent Gen­er­a­tion that has voted re­li­ably Re­pub­lic­an in re­cent years. Through 2020, the young­er voters re­pla­cing them will be mem­bers of the Mil­len­ni­al Gen­er­a­tion (gen­er­ally re­garded as those born between 1981 and 2002), which has shown much more open­ness to Demo­crats. Since 2000, when the first mil­len­ni­als be­came eli­gible, Demo­crats have av­er­aged 45 per­cent among whites un­der age 30, far more than the 36 per­cent they av­er­aged with young whites dur­ing the 1980s (and much more than what they are at­tract­ing from older whites now).

This sug­gests that one crit­ic­al vari­able is wheth­er today’s young white mil­len­ni­als will move to­ward the GOP as they age. Mi­chael Dimock, dir­ect­or of the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, which has ex­tens­ively stud­ied gen­er­a­tion­al vot­ing pat­terns, says there is some pre­ced­ent for such a shift: Older baby boomers who came of age from the Kennedy to Nix­on pres­id­en­cies have shif­ted to­ward the GOP in re­cent elec­tions (the young­est boomers, who reached adult­hood un­der Ger­ald Ford and Jimmy Carter, have voted more con­sist­ently Re­pub­lic­an). And as young people struggled in the eco­nomy, Obama’s show­ing among young­er whites did drop sharply from 2008 to 2012.

But, Dimock says, the evid­ence from oth­er gen­er­a­tions doesn’t sup­port the no­tion that voters “in­her­ently [drift] Re­pub­lic­an as they age.” Moreover, he says, the lib­er­al-lean­ing po­s­i­tions the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion ex­presses on so­cial is­sues re­main a bar­ri­er to fur­ther Re­pub­lic­an in­roads with them. “Young people are not off-the-scale lib­er­al when it comes to the so­cial safety net or gov­ern­ment pro­grams, but there is a really strong pull from those so­cial is­sues,” he says. Dimock notes that the gen­er­a­tion fol­low­ing the mil­len­ni­als, which is reach­ing aware­ness amid the polit­ic­al stale­mate and eco­nom­ic struggles of the Obama years, may not rep­lic­ate their older sib­lings’ Demo­crat­ic lean­ings — but they can’t vote at all un­til after 2020 and won’t par­ti­cip­ate in large num­bers un­til after that.

Geo­graphy poses an­oth­er com­plic­a­tion for a whites-first GOP strategy: Even if the Re­pub­lic­an Party can fur­ther ex­pand its over­all na­tion­al ad­vant­age among whites, its an­oth­er thing to do so in the states crit­ic­al to the Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial vic­tor­ies over the past two dec­ades. Rom­ney’s na­tion­al mar­gins among the vari­ous groups of white voters are in­flated by Obama’s ut­ter col­lapse in the coun­try’s most con­ser­vat­ive re­gions, par­tic­u­larly the South (where the pres­id­ent won few­er than one in six whites in Alabama and only one in nine in Mis­sis­sippi, exit polls found). In most of the places where Obama needed to do bet­ter among whites to win, he did. “Some of this you have to look at re­gion­ally, be­cause this is ex­ag­ger­ated in the Ap­palachi­an parts of the coun­try and the South,” Green­berg says. “The white num­bers in the in­dus­tri­al Mid­w­est and on the East and West Coast are dif­fer­ent.”

In­deed, ana­lys­is con­duc­ted for Na­tion­al Journ­al by Edis­on Re­search shows that Obama equaled or ex­ceeded his na­tion­al share of the vote among non­col­lege whites in 22 of the 31 states in which exit polls were con­duc­ted last year — and won each of them ex­cept In­di­ana. Like­wise, he equaled or ex­ceeded his na­tion­al share of the vote among col­lege-edu­cated whites in 22 states, and won all of them ex­cept Montana. (See “The White Vote, by State,” p. 17.) North Car­o­lina was the only one of the nine battle­ground states that both sides act­ively con­tested in which Obama did not match or bet­ter his na­tion­al show­ing among either non­col­lege whites (Ohio and Flor­ida), whites with col­lege de­grees (Vir­gin­ia), or both (New Hamp­shire, Wis­con­sin, Iowa, Col­or­ado and Nevada). Obama car­ried each of those states bey­ond North Car­o­lina. 

Weigh­ing all these factors, most polit­ic­al pro­fes­sion­als in both parties who have ex­pressed an opin­ion are some­where between du­bi­ous and scorn­ful of the no­tion that Re­pub­lic­ans can rely al­most en­tirely on fur­ther gains with whites to re­cap­ture the pres­id­ency without mean­ing­fully im­prov­ing among minor­it­ies. “This is an anti-math­em­at­ic­al po­s­i­tion,” says long­time Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Geoff Gar­in. “Elect­or­al real­ity is not the product of some­body’s ideo­lo­gic­al wishes. It’s arith­met­ic. And the arith­met­ic is work­ing badly against the Re­pub­lic­ans.”

Sim­il­arly, Green­berg, who polled for Bill Clin­ton, says Obama faces unique prob­lems among whites both be­cause of his race and the gruel­ingly slow eco­nom­ic re­cov­ery. “Those things to­geth­er make me think these white num­bers [for Demo­crats] are not the new baseline — that they are much more likely to go up than down,” he says. 

Vet­er­an Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster Whit Ayres is no less dis­missive. “Any strategy that is pre­dic­ated on [con­sist­ently] get­ting a high­er per­cent­age of the white vote than Ron­ald Re­agan got in 1980 is a los­ing strategy,” he says. “It’s the same thing Demo­crats would talk about in the late 1980s after they had lost five of the pre­vi­ous six pres­id­en­tial elec­tions in the pop­u­lar vote. What they would say is, we need to get the non­voters to vote; the non­voters are with us. It nev­er happened.” 

The whites-first ar­gu­ment, Ayres adds, “is not get­ting much pen­et­ra­tion among people who are ser­i­ous about win­ning pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. It is get­ting trac­tion among people who are try­ing to jus­ti­fy vot­ing against im­mig­ra­tion re­form or mak­ing any of the oth­er changes that are ne­ces­sary to be na­tion­ally com­pet­it­ive in the 21st cen­tury.” 

Re­pub­lic­an strategist Rich Beeson, the na­tion­al field dir­ect­or for Rom­ney’s 2012 cam­paign, takes a more nu­anced view. In the­ory, he says, the next GOP nom­in­ee might achieve enough white gains to win without im­prov­ing among minor­it­ies. But as the minor­ity pop­u­la­tion con­tin­ues to in­crease, Beeson adds, “is it a re­cipe for long-term suc­cess? Ab­so­lutely not.” 

All four con­sult­ants, like oth­ers in both parties, agree that Re­pub­lic­ans would face ad­di­tion­al chal­lenges ex­pand­ing or even main­tain­ing their white mar­gins in 2016 if Demo­crats nom­in­ate Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton. Not only would her status as the first fe­male ma­jor-party nom­in­ee give her an ob­vi­ous call­ing card with white wo­men, but dur­ing the 2008 nom­in­a­tion fight against Obama she also ap­pealed ef­fect­ively to some voters whom Obama has al­ways struggled with. “Work­ing-class whites con­nect with her and Pres­id­ent Clin­ton in a way they don’t with Pres­id­ent Obama,” says Gar­in, who served as the seni­or strategist in her 2008 cam­paign’s fi­nal stages.

That doesn’t mean Hil­lary Clin­ton would be a fa­vor­ite to win most white wo­men (no Demo­crat has since Bill Clin­ton in 1996), and she has al­most no chance of car­ry­ing most work­ing-class whites. But ab­sent big GOP gains with minor­it­ies, she could win, even com­fort­ably, just by main­tain­ing Obama’s show­ing with whites; Re­pub­lic­ans would face the bur­den of push­ing her be­low Obama’s per­form­ance. Though it’s very early, the first 2016 polling in­stead has gen­er­ally shown her trim­ming Obama’s de­fi­cit among whites both na­tion­ally and in key states. Ayres says that rather than hop­ing to in­crease their show­ing with whites, Re­pub­lic­ans must pre­pare for “the like­li­hood that the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee, par­tic­u­larly one who doesn’t come from the far left wing of the party, will get [a] high­er pro­por­tion of the white vote” than Obama did in 2012. “That means,” Ayres adds, “Re­pub­lic­ans have simply got to re­think the for­mula of how you get to 50-plus-1 per­cent.”

Kris­tol, the GOP thinker, doesn’t con­cede that Re­pub­lic­ans are un­likely to ex­pand their white mar­gin against Clin­ton if she runs. “It’s true that Re­pub­lic­ans have not done much bet­ter [than in 2012], but if Rom­ney-Mc­Cain be­comes the high-wa­ter mark for the Re­pub­lic­an Party with any group of voters, they are in trouble,” he says. And while Kris­tol be­lieves Re­pub­lic­ans will ali­en­ate con­ser­vat­ives for little gain with His­pan­ics if they pass im­mig­ra­tion re­form, he says the party next time should in­tensi­fy its pur­suit of minor­ity voters on oth­er grounds. “I very much hope the Re­pub­lic­an Party by 2016 will have a con­ser­vat­ive re­form agenda es­pe­cially speak­ing to work­ing- and middle-class Amer­ic­ans,” he says. “I still think there’s a prob­lem [with His­pan­ics], but I don’t think it’s in­ev­it­able that you can nev­er get above the 27 per­cent [Rom­ney won with them] if im­mig­ra­tion doesn’t pass.”

In some ways, the very ex­ist­ence of this de­bate en­cap­su­lates the GOP’s chal­lenge. It’s un­likely that a party with more di­versity in its co­ali­tion would be de­bat­ing wheth­er it could re­spond to those voters without sac­ri­fi­cing its prin­ciples. But even in a rap­idly di­ver­si­fy­ing na­tion, Re­pub­lic­ans re­main al­most en­tirely de­pend­ent on the votes of whites, who sup­plied Rom­ney with nearly 90 per­cent of his total sup­port and cast over 90 per­cent of the bal­lots in al­most all of the party’s 2012 pres­id­en­tial primar­ies. Nearly four-fifths of House Re­pub­lic­ans rep­res­ent dis­tricts that are more white than the na­tion­al av­er­age. This means that minor­it­ies who might be drawn to the party by a dif­fer­ent mix of policies, such as com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form, have min­im­al in­flu­ence in shap­ing the party’s agenda now. For those seek­ing a more in­clus­ive and di­verse GOP co­ali­tion, the first hurdle is that the fu­ture doesn’t have a seat at the table today.

COR­REC­TION: A chart in the ori­gin­al ver­sion of this story gave the in­cor­rect share of white voters with a col­lege de­gree in 1984 and in 2012. The cor­rect shares are 30 per­cent and 50 per­cent, re­spect­ively.

Contributions by Stephanie Czekalinsk

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