Why White Voters Will Flee a White-Only Party

Polls show centrist whites, particularly millennials, don't want to align themselves with a party that can't attract anybody else.

Supporters Chandler Wahrmund, 18, center, his mother, Laralee List Wahrmund, right, and Maggie Wright, left, cheer during an event held by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to announce his 2014 campaign for governor, Sunday, July 14, 2013, in San Antonio.  (AP)

What a difference nine months makes. After November's decisive electoral verdict, Republican leaders vowed to make the party more popular among minorities. Listen to some of the GOP's top thinkers now, however, and you're as likely to hear talk about "missing" white voters as efforts to court other groups. Rather than making inroads among minorities, the party is plotting to win more blue-collar whites, as House Republicans have come to view immigration reform — once regarded as the centerpiece of the GOP's renewed pitch to Latinos — as a political loser. The chatter amounts to an unofficial announcement that, despite the postelection hand-wringing, the GOP isn't staying awake at night worrying about its lack of diversity.

"Democrats liked to mock the GOP as the "˜Party of White People' after the 2012 elections," wrote political analyst Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics, in a widely read argument about why immigration reform wasn't politically essential for the GOP. "But from a purely electoral perspective, that's not a terrible thing to be. Even with present population projections, there are likely to be a lot of non-Hispanic whites in this country for a very long time."

But if the GOP determines that its future lies with an all-out pursuit of whites, it might find an unwanted surprise. Some white voters, particularly young ones, won't align themselves with a party that can't attract support from Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asians. To attract more white voters, the GOP, ironically, might first need to attract more minorities.

That's the central dilemma of any plan to win with a nearly all-white coalition. As the minority share grows with each presidential election, Republicans would need to win a greater and greater percentage of the white vote to prevail. That challenge proved insurmountable last year, when Mitt Romney won nearly 60 percent of white voters and still lost. In his rebuttal to Republicans who don't feel an urgency to attract minorities, Karl Rove wrote in June in The Wall Street Journal that Romney would have had to have won 62.54 percent of all white voters to top President Obama — almost the same share Ronald Reagan won during his 49-state landslide victory in 1984. As the minority vote grows — and it surely will between now and 2016 — that figure will rise.

But Trende and some Republicans argue that is not an unreachable goal, especially if Republicans can motivate the millions of whites "missing" from the 2012 election to vote next time, and if black turnout drops, post-Obama. (Trende pointed out that the Democratic presidential nominee, controlling for the political environment, has lost about 1.5 percentage points off the white vote every cycle since 1992.) But the GOP's agenda and image may limit its ability to reach centrist white voters, especially those of the millennial generation.

Seventy-six percent of likely millennial voters, for instance, say immigrants make the country a stronger place, according to a July poll from the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. Just 61 percent of all likely voters agreed with that. "On a number of key issues, if the party appears to be intolerant of gays, minorities, or immigrants, it's going to have trouble competing with this group," says Michael Hais, a Democrat and a coauthor of the book Millennial Makeover.

The view that diversity is good is inextricably embedded in the younger generation, argues Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster. "It's not just the growing diversity of the country," he says. "It's about worldview associated with the country's diversity." As Obama put it during last month's impromptu remarks about Trayvon Martin, children his daughters' age are handling race relations better than he and his friends did growing up.

College-educated women and suburban moderates hold similar views. Both groups are more accepting of diversity, and they recoil at the notion of backing a party that doesn't encourage it. It's a story that has played out in the GOP's past, says Whit Ayers, a Republican pollster and immigration-reform advocate. The Republican Party's perceived intolerance turned off voters who otherwise might have been drawn to the GOP on issues such as the economy and foreign policy. "It's just like the white suburban women who were uncomfortable with politicians who used quasi-racist language," he says. "They just don't want to be associated with them."

It's not just a lack of diversity that hurts the party among some white voters; Democrats have expertly exploited some of the sharpest parts of the Republican agenda in other areas, too. "If you're the GOP, you're losing white females on contraception and abortion, and potentially losing some white seniors on issues of Medicare and Medicaid," said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster. "All of a sudden, it's not about white and black anymore; it's about where you stand on issues, even within white voters."

Anzalone points out that Romney, for all his success overall with white voters, performed poorly with whites in places such as Iowa, where Obama won easily. Whites constituted 93 percent of the vote there, and the president won 51 percent of their votes, according to exit polls. The same was true in states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Republicans might yet redouble efforts to attract minority voters. Immigration reform in the House isn't quite dead yet, and many of the party's leaders — even if their voices aren't quite as loud as they were nine months ago — still declare that the GOP must broaden its appeal if it wants to thrive. A midterm electoral map saturated with red states could still hand Republicans control of both chambers of Congress in 2014. By 2016, maybe the party will finally have found its next Reagan. If not, the GOP could be in deep trouble.