Much is made of the GOP’s need to expand its demographic base in 2016. It is constantly derided as the party of “old white men”–a not-so-subtle implication that conservatism, if not the entire Republican Party apparatus, is largely racist, sexist, and out of touch with the times.
Of course, it is not wrong to have the support of whites any more than it is to have the support of nonwhites. But the stereotype does have basis in truth, which can limit the future electoral success of conservative candidates.
Pew recently conducted a survey breaking down the party affiliation of different demographics. The data show that Millennial voters lean more Democratic than Republican by a 51-35% margin, while blacks, Hispanics, and Asians lean Democratic by 80-11%, 56%-26%, and 65-23% respectively. Meanwhile, white voters – a shrinking portion of the population – only lean Republican by 49-40%. While the assertions after 2008 and 2012 that there is a demographically guaranteed permanent Democratic majority are certainly overstated, the status quo is not a recipe for future conservative political success.
This presents a conflict for the GOP. Should it move to the center to avoid alienating less conservative groups, or does it simply need to make a better sales pitch? The focus has particularly been on winning over two particular racial groups: Hispanics, who are the fastest-growing racial group in the US, and Asians, who have overtaken Hispanics as the largest immigrant group to the US.
The “move to the center” solution is an unacceptable one for core conservative voters. The most infamous example of this strategy, supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants, would fundamentally undermine the rule of law, as well as reward those who erode it. And what is the point of having a Republican Party that does not represent the large electorate of conservatives, besides providing a Progressive Lite alternative to increasingly left-wing Democrats?
Embracing this strategy of targeted caving would probably fall short in many respects. First of all, victory would be that much tougher if conservative voters decide they would rather stay home than choose between two bad candidates. In the case of amnesty, a study has shown that supporting legal status for illegal aliens would not even significantly increase Hispanic support for Republicans.
Various polls seem to confirm that the differences extend to basic philosophical outlook: 67% of Hispanics across nationalities in 2014 expressed support for a bigger government with more services compared with 21% supporting smaller government. This preference is also expressed by millennial voters across racial lines (53% supported bigger government in 2012, 38% smaller government) and Asians (55% to 36% in 2011).
Simply changing the party to appeal to these voters’ existing preferences would require a fundamental abandonment of conservative principles. This is where the second strategy comes in: conversion. Optimistic Republicans like to argue that some of these Democratic groups are “natural conservatives.” Fittingly, the Religious Right reckons that it is in the best position to evangelize social conservatism among Hispanics, who are more comfortable with religion playing a role in public life, are family-oriented, and disapprove of abortion (though still support gay marriage).
Asian-Americans are perceived as being similarly family-oriented – albeit, not in a Western Judeo-Christian context. This, coupled with their overall economic success and dissatisfaction with anti-meritocratic left-wing policies like affirmative action, makes them potential targets as well. Of course Asians, like Hispanics, are not a monolithic group in terms of culture or economics, but overall polling of them shows great enthusiasm for American religious liberties and economic opportunities, as well as disappointment with American moral values and strength of family ties.
The first two traits show that Asians may not buy into the left-wing belief that the economy is rigged and that the disadvantaged lack chances for mobility. The latter two provide an opportunity for social conservatives to win over Asian voters by branding themselves as champions of familial and social stability.
Are broad poll responses indicative of a “natural conservatism” lying dormant in various groups that currently lean Democratic? Perhaps. Republicans have after all performed better with them in the past. Mitt Romney was notoriously rejected by Hispanics in 2012 (winning only 27% of their votes), but George W. Bush was able to win at least 40% a few election cycles prior. In 2014, Republicans outperformed Romney’s Hispanic numbers in many major states. 2016 is not a foregone conclusion either – almost every GOP candidate is relatively unknown among Hispanics, and many are seen quite favorably by them (the glaring exception is Donald Trump – both well-known and much despised).
Success in the 2014 elections also points to potential paths to victory with Asian and Millennial voters. Asians voted consistently Republican until the mid-90s when they started gradually becoming more Democratic, culminating in a record 73% who voted for Obama in 2012. Yet 2014 exit polls showed Republicans topping Democrats among Asians, 50% to 49%. Granted, methodological issues limit the efficacy of those polls, but even slightly less optimistic results represent a huge improvement from 2012.
Youth voters, although reliably Democratic for years – particularly during the Obama era – have begun shifting more Republican recently. 2014 polling showed very likely youth voters preferred a Republican Congress to a Democratic one by 51-47%. College students self-identifying as liberals outnumber conservatives by only 7 points today (40% to 33% compared to 33% to 16% in 2007). Perhaps coming of age during this Democratic administration has not left them impressed.
Given the theoretical appeal of conservative ideas and the evidence of recent successes, how can Republicans execute a winning strategy? In the short term, much will depend on who the GOP’s standard-bearer will be. But Hillary Clinton (who is all but certain to beat Bernie Sanders), is making the job easier. Her numbers with white and male voters could potentially be worse than Obama’s record-breaking lows, and she almost certainly will not outperform his numbers with racial minorities. If Republicans simply maintain white voters and move the dial slightly in their favor with minorities compared with 2012, it could be enough to guarantee victory.
In the long-run, this will not be enough. The GOP still has a toxic brand – it has a 29% positivity rating compared to 45% for the Democratic Party. A massive effort for voter outreach and positive messaging for a conservative agenda is needed. Victorious Republicans did this in 2014, for example, by micro-targeting Vietnamese voters whose family history made them averse to state-driven economic policies. The Koch Brothers have invested considerable resources building a technological infrastructure to track Hispanic voters and promote libertarian principles with relevant messaging. This is something that can be done within the Republican Party and outside it as well.
The most important solution may simply be to re-brand the Republican Party as more inclusive. Even if a voter may agree with Republicans on many important issues, he will be less inclined to vote for a party that appears indifferent to the interests of all but white, male, older voters. This will require walking a fine line between making specific, relevant pitches to various minority groups, and wading into the divisive, pandering muck of identity politics.
If Republicans are able to make a convincing and appealing case for conservative ideas and values, it can transform the party and capitalize on the impressive political gains already made on the local and Congressional level. If conservatives are simply unable to win over nonwhite voters to their cause, it is only a matter of time before the party ceases to be competitive nationally.