If demographics is destiny, the Republican Party has a rendezvous with irrelevance — unless its policies change. This is the message some Republican leaders have been sending in the closing weeks of the presidential campaign. “The demographics race we’re losing badly,” Senator Lindsey Graham recently told the Washington Post with characteristic bluntness. “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”
The numbers tell the tale. Minorities have accounted for 85 percent of the country’s population growth over the past decade, according to the US Census Bureau. A record 24 million Hispanics will be eligible to vote in the 2012 presidential election, up 22 percent since 2008. Meanwhile, nearly 87 percent of registered Republican voters are white. And whites have declined as a portion of the electorate in every presidential election since 1992.
It’s getting harder and harder to cobble together a winning coalition based on the grievances of a diminishing faction of white men, and many Republicans know it. An unnamed strategist was quoted in the National Journal in August explaining that Mitt Romney campaign’s formula for winning the presidency involves capturing 61 percent of the white vote (more than any candidate since Ronald Reagan). “This is the last time anyone will try to do this,” the strategist said.
Of course, no voting bloc is monolithic. There are conservative Hispanics, pro-life women, gay Catholics, and any number of other crossovers. But they are the exceptions. The “ethnic gap” between Hispanic voters who favor the Democratic Party (62 percent) over the Republicans (25 percent) is 37 points — wider than the gender gap.
So the Republican dilemma is clear. The argument comes over what to do about it. The party could appeal to the new demographic by adjusting its policies toward immigration reform, for example. It could denounce racial profiling by authorities enforcing “show me your papers’’ laws. It could make another sincere stab at a guest worker program for agricultural sectors of the economy.
Or it could double down on its harsh approach to immigration, affirmative action, and other wedge issues and hope — as more than a few have noted — that restrictive new voter ID laws will suppress turnout among minorities. Is it any surprise that of the 34 states introducing voter ID bills last year, 33 had Republican-majority legislatures?
For four decades national Republicans have pursued a strategy, often successful, of racking up huge majorities of white male voters and winning just enough others to carry the day. The orthodoxy is deeply set by now. George W. Bush, John McCain, and more recently, Rick Perry were blasted for making overtures to immigrants that might antagonize the party’s base.
For his part, Romney seems to be on several sides of the issue. Campaigning in Colorado — a battleground state with a surging minority population — he said he would preserve President Obama’s executive order delaying deportation of students who came to the United States as children, at least for two years. By that time, he promised, he would have achieved comprehensive immigration reform. Details on that, presumably, will come in January.
But Romney also has said he’d veto the DREAM Act upon which Obama’s order is based. In Massachusetts, he was an early supporter of an ill-considered ballot question to dismantle bilingual education. Among his campaign advisers on immigration matters is Kris Kobach, secretary of state from Kansas, who helped draft the notorious Arizona law that makes it a crime even to visit the state without proper documentation.
In June, Pennsylvania’s majority leader boasted to a Republican committee meeting that a strict new voter ID law there “is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” Democrats seized on this statement as proof that so-called “election integrity” laws are simply intended to stop minorities from voting. This would seem cynical, or paranoid, except that no substantial evidence of intentional election-day voter fraud has ever been presented. These laws are a solution in search of a problem.
Republicans are facing a serious quandary of electoral math. They should be working to broaden their party’s appeal and build a true majority of voters, not treating America like it is one nation, divisible.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.