Why the GOP's Faith in Older, White Voters Won't Hold Out for Much Longer

If voter turnout among whites is strong and minorities weak, Mitt Romney would win the 2012 presidential election, according to a Brookings Institute demographic analysis. (National Journal)

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is preparing a push for an immigration-reform proposal that promises to be the first real test of whether Republicans have learned a lesson from the Nov. 6 election results. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and congressional Republicans won the white vote by numbers normally seen in landslide victories, and they also won independents by 5 and 7 percentage points, respectively. But Romney lost the election nationally by almost 4 points, and the GOP lost the overall popular vote for the House of Representatives. Although winning big among white voters and carrying the independent vote is necessary for GOP victories nationally, it's no longer sufficient to win.

The white share of the vote in presidential elections has dropped 15 points over the past six elections, from 87 percent in 1992 to 72 percent in 2012. This trend has little to do with Barack Obama, the nation's first African-American president. The declines from one presidential election to the next have been consistent: a 4-point drop from 1992 to 1996, 2 more points in 2000, 4 additional points in 2004, 3 points in 2008, and 2 points last year.

At the same time, the Republican share of the minority vote is getting grisly. Among the 13 percent of voters who are black, Obama won by 87 percentage points, 93 percent to 6 percent, while congressional Democrats won by 78 points, 91 percent to 13 percent. Latinos made up 10 percent of last year's electorate and gave the president a 44-point edge, 71 percent to 27 percent, while congressional Democrats had a 38-point advantage, 68 percent to 30 percent. The Asian-American vote — 3 percent of the electorate and now the fastest-growing ethnic group — sided with Obama by 47 points, 73 percent to 26 percent; congressional Democrats won by a 1-point-wider margin, 73 percent to 25 percent.

According to a Nov. 14 report by the Pew Research Hispanic Center, 40 percent of the population growth of citizens of voting age between now and 2030 will be Hispanic, 21 percent will be black, and 15 percent will be Asian-American. Only 23 percent of that growth will be white. Indeed 50,000 Latinos will turn 18 years of age each month for the next 20 years. The Census Bureau reported last year that 50.4 percent of all births in the U.S. in the 12 months ending July 1, 2011, were among minorities; 49.5 percent were among non-Hispanic whites.

This is simply math. As long as Republicans drive minority voters away, they will not be a nationally competitive party. Sure, congressional district boundaries, as currently drawn, will most likely keep the GOP in the House majority for the duration of this decade and until the 2022 election, the first after the next census. But Republicans had better pray that the 2020 gubernatorial and state legislative elections go their way and they can get another favorable remapping; otherwise, their situation in the House could change markedly as well.

But the GOP's problems aren't just about race and ethnicity. While Republicans still do better than Democrats among voters 40 and older, particularly those over 65, they are losing to Democrats among voters in their 30s — and losing badly among those under 30. As someone who just turned 59, I can make this next provocative statement: Democrats are doing better among voters who can be considered the future. Republicans are doing well among those who could be described as the pre-dead.

As those voters whose political identities were strongly influenced by the success of Ronald Reagan's presidency and the less-than-successful tenure of Jimmy Carter begin to lose their share of the electorate, and those whose political identities were formed during less auspicious times for the GOP increase their share, the future looks troubling for the Republican Party.

Next, look at gender politics. You could once suggest a half-empty, half-full assessment of the political gender gap. Yes, Republicans have a problem with female voters, but Democrats also have a problem with male voters. Keep in mind, though, that female voters outnumber males and that women live longer. In the past two presidential elections, 53 percent of the electorate was female. But worse for Republicans, the vote wasn't symmetrical. Romney and congressional Republicans won the male vote by 7 and 8 percentage points, respectively; Obama and Democrats won the larger women's vote by 11 points. That's a losing equation for the GOP.

For now, the friendly enclaves afforded them by those who drew the congressional districts protect a majority of House Republicans. GOP gubernatorial candidates and other statewide political hopefuls also have some shelter because nonfederal races tend to be fought in a slightly less ideologically driven context, and are less affected by politics out of state and in Washington. But for Republicans who want their party to do more than simply hold a majority of the House — particularly those who hope to gain more than just one-third of the governing responsibility — the GOP needs to stop digging holes and start filling some in.

This article appeared in the Saturday, January 19, 2013 edition of National Journal.