As recently as 1992, white voters made up 87 percent of the electorate. That year, 94 percent of the votes George H.W. Bush won were from white voters. In 2012, white voters were down to 72 percent of the electorate, and Mitt Romney got clobbered among the other 28 percent.
The strategy of playing to white voters, which worked well for almost half a century, has rebounded on Republicans, to devastating effect. When you pass draconian “papers please” legislation, or denigrate any social safety net program as giving T-bone steaks to “strapping young bucks,” you send a clear and unmistakable signal to people that you do not value the people you’re attacking. Unsurprisingly, these people then vote against you. With people of color making up a greater percentage of the electorate, Republicans have hit a demographic brick wall — there simply aren’t enough white voters intrigued by a return to segregation to overcome the massive deficit Republicans face among voters they’ve tried to dehumanize.
Voters Less Religious, More Tolerant
Another factor working against Republicans is their embrace of conservative social issues. The Religious Right had its genesis in the fight for continuing segregation. When the American apartheid system was finally killed, leaders in the movement such as Jerry Falwell retrenched, fighting instead against abortion and homosexuality, as well as pushing women toward “traditional” family roles. The positions espoused by the religious right became part of the Republican catechism. It drove some Rockefeller Republicans out of the party and caused others, like President George H.W. Bush (and Mitt Romney), to reverse their positions on abortion rights. The GOP was happy to make the deal, though, as there were more than enough socially conservative voters to make up the gap.
The problem for the Republican Party is, unfortunately, that younger voters had their own minds, and used those minds to draw different conclusions about the world. As more LGBTs came out and demanded civil rights, as more women joined the workforce and as birth control went from unusual to ubiquitous, younger voters became more liberal in their views.
The disconnect between young and old is seen most sharply in the split on same-sex marriage. Younger voters strongly favor full civil rights for same-sex couples, and view opposition to it as pure bigotry. This is true even among Republicans. Republicans have been slow to pick up on this sea change, in no small part because older, less tolerant people make up the core of activists and elected officials in the party.
Republicans still do well among Christian Conservatives, but there are fewer conservative Christians all the time. Protestants are no longer a majority of the population, and the fastest-growing religious group in the country is “no religious affiliation.” The upshot is that the country is rapidly moving away from the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, toward a more tolerant, pluralistic society.
Unfortunately for Republicans, they’ve been opposing tolerance and pluralism for forty-odd years. Simply put, the party is out of step with the country — and especially, with younger voters.
Economic Policies Unpopular
Republicans have always been a party of wealth, and much of their drive to attract working-class voters can be seen as an attempt to deal with the simple reality that there are always more non-rich people than rich people. That doesn’t mean that Republicans have been unable to push their economic vision these past fifty years, though. Republicans have used their relationship with value voters to advance their ideal of smaller government. They’ve managed to do this in no small party by not actually cutting that much out of government, of course — but they’ve succeeded in winning tax breaks for the wealthy, which has been a key part of their policy.
Unfortunately for Republicans, the past decade of slow growth has laid bare the fact that tax cuts aren’t particularly correlated with economic growth. As the middle class has stagnated, the rich have continued to get richer, causing wide swaths of the electorate to question the wisdom of trickle-down economics. Exit polls showed that 60 percent of voters supported raising taxes on the wealthy. Indeed, Romney’s loss can be pinned in no small part on his opposition to government intervention in saving the auto industry; his belief in “smaller government” would have cost a million jobs, concentrated in the Midwest. It’s no surprise that the Rust Belt rejected Romney, despite his being a native of Michigan.
This leaves the Republicans in an awkward place. If people are turning against their economic proposals, and if there aren’t enough white conservative voters to keep winning on social issues, where can they go from here?
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