Can the GOP escape its destiny of demographic disaster?

It won't be easy. But it can be done.

The GOP could be fading away as the nation's demographic changes.
(Image credit: David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

"Demography is destiny," wrote Ben Wattenberg and Richard Scammon in their 1970 book The Real Majority, perhaps the first formal warning in American politics that political parties had to pay heed to changing populations. And while The Real Majority served as a warning to both major parties, the argument that demography is destiny has most recently been applied to the Republican Party's sputtering attempts to appeal to an increasingly diverse American electorate.

A broad study by Pew Research Center of U.S. demographics recently highlighted the potential danger for the GOP. The fastest growing ethnic group in the U.S. is also the youngest. Over a quarter (26 percent) of U.S.-born Hispanics are millennials, nearly identical to blacks and Asians (25 percent), while only 20 percent of U.S.-born whites are millennials. More significantly, about a third of all Hispanics are under the age of 18 (32 percent), a larger share than African-Americans (26 percent), and much larger than Asians (20 percent) and whites (19 percent). The percentage of Baby Boomer whites nearly doubles that of Hispanics (27 percent to 14 percent), and more than triples that in the previous generation (13 percent to 4 percent).

"For the nation's Hispanic population, youth is a defining characteristic," Pew's Eileen Patten writes. "[A]mong the nation's millennials, Hispanics are a greater share than they are among all American adults — Hispanics make up 21 percent of all U.S. millennials versus 15 percent of all adults in 2014." With the next generation even more significant, Hispanic influence on American culture — and politics — will grow stronger over the next several decades.

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What does that have to do with the Republican Party? Plenty, argues The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza. He cites data from a December analysis by David Wasserman about the changing nature of the electorate and the GOP's struggle to keep up. "In 1980, Ronald Reagan won 56 percent of all white voters and won election in a 44-state landslide," Wasserman points out. "In 2012, GOP nominee Mitt Romney carried 59 percent of all white voters yet lost decisively." The difference was that the overall percentage of the white vote declined in the intervening 32 years. "African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and other non-whites — all overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning groups — rose from 12 percent of voters in 1980 to 28 percent in 2012."

Cillizza concludes that the GOP is headed for electoral disaster at the national level. "If nothing changes — in terms of the booming growth among non-white voters and the GOP's inability to communicate with them — the 2016 election may only be the tip of the demographic iceberg for Republicans," Cillizza warns. "The 2020 and 2024 presidential elections could be blowouts."

If nothing changes is a large caveat. The demographic developments won't reverse themselves, but the nature of the electorate does not necessarily depend on demographics. It depends on political movements and their ability to connect with voters and communities, build trust, and deliver on their promises.

The key question is this: Can Republicans change?

Romney only won 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2012 election, according to exit polling, and only 6 percent of African-American votes. But Romney's loss didn't result from shifting demographics as much as it did from a lack of a strategy to address these communities. George W. Bush won a majority of the popular vote and a second term as president eight years earlier while winning 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, improving from 35 percent in 2000. (He won 11 percent of the African-American vote, too). Bush had a strategy that effectively engaged Hispanics when they comprised 8 percent of the overall vote, while Romney clearly did not when they accounted for 10 percent of the overall vote.

The issue for the GOP and its presidential nominees in addressing these demographic changes is one of bridging a disconnect that exists not just with Hispanics, but also with African-Americans, Asians, and younger voters in general. The RNC itself concluded in its "autopsy" after the 2012 election that Republican outreach efforts had been temporary, inadequate, and in many cases counter-productive. (And of course, anti-minority rhetoric of the sort regularly spouted by Donald Trump sure isn't helping matters.)

In researching my book Going Red, I spoke with people in minority communities who echoed those findings, but went further. Too often, Republican campaigns treat these communities almost as destinations for anthropological research rather than as communities to engage and embrace. In the past two election cycles, the GOP dispensed with the kind of peer-to-peer politics at which Barack Obama excelled in favor of national messaging that sounded too much like lectures.

And too often, the GOP remained ignorant of the specific Hispanic communities it tried to address, offering the same message to voters of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Colombian, Venezuelan, and Central American descent. Voters in these ethnic groups have many common interests, but they're often as different as white Americans of Italian and Irish descent. Plus, much depends on where in the country they live. Hispanics in Jefferson County, Colorado, for instance, have roots that go back generations, and as such are not focusing on immigration as much as they are issues at play in their lives now. State Rep. Jon Keyser calls them "the four Es" — the economy, education, energy, and the environment. "I hope that we don't have presidential candidates that come to Jeffco and just want to talk about illegal immigration," Keyser told me.

People in these communities want honest engagement, even when potential disagreements arise. E.J. Otero, a retired Air Force colonel who became the first Hispanic to win a major-party nomination to Congress from West Tampa, expressed his frustration when fellow Republicans don't show up to compete. "You're not going to [win] as a Republican and have a TV ad and say Vote for me because I'm a great guy," Otero explains about West Tampa, "and not go to their local meetings in their neighborhoods. It all comes down to the handshake."

Engagement won't eliminate the challenge Republicans face from changing demographics overnight, but it will open the door to perhaps allowing them to compete more effectively than in the previous two election cycles. More importantly, it will force them to compete more broadly for conservative and Republican values by contextualizing them in the lives of these communities. That will at least give Republicans the opportunity to avoid becoming passive victims of a demographic "disaster."

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