The Next Elections
Weighing all these factors, most political professionals in both parties who have expressed an opinion are somewhere between dubious and scornful of the notion that Republicans can rely almost entirely on further gains with whites to recapture the presidency without meaningfully improving among minorities. "This is an anti-mathematical position," says longtime Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "Electoral reality is not the product of somebody's ideological wishes. It's arithmetic. And the arithmetic is working badly against the Republicans."
Similarly, Greenberg, who polled for Bill Clinton, says Obama faces unique problems among whites both because of his race and the gruelingly slow economic recovery. "Those things together make me think these white numbers [for Democrats] are not the new baseline -- that they are much more likely to go up than down," he says.
Veteran Republican pollster Whit Ayres is no less dismissive. "Any strategy that is predicated on [consistently] getting a higher percentage of the white vote than Ronald Reagan got in 1980 is a losing strategy," he says. "It's the same thing Democrats would talk about in the late 1980s after they had lost five of the previous six presidential elections in the popular vote. What they would say is, we need to get the nonvoters to vote; the nonvoters are with us. It never happened."
The whites-first argument, Ayres adds, "is not getting much penetration among people who are serious about winning presidential elections. It is getting traction among people who are trying to justify voting against immigration reform or making any of the other changes that are necessary to be nationally competitive in the 21st century."
Republican strategist Rich Beeson, the national field director for Romney's 2012 campaign, takes a more nuanced view. In theory, he says, the next GOP nominee might achieve enough white gains to win without improving among minorities. But as the minority population continues to increase, Beeson adds, "is it a recipe for long-term success? Absolutely not."
All four consultants, like others in both parties, agree that Republicans would face additional challenges expanding or even maintaining their white margins in 2016 if Democrats nominate Hillary Rodham Clinton. Not only would her status as the first female major-party nominee give her an obvious calling card with white women, but during the 2008 nomination fight against Obama she also appealed effectively to some voters whom Obama has always struggled with. "Working-class whites connect with her and President Clinton in a way they don't with President Obama," says Garin, who served as the senior strategist in her 2008 campaign's final stages.
That doesn't mean Hillary Clinton would be a favorite to win most white women (no Democrat has since Bill Clinton in 1996), and she has almost no chance of carrying most working-class whites. But absent big GOP gains with minorities, she could win, even comfortably, just by maintaining Obama's showing with whites; Republicans would face the burden of pushing her below Obama's performance. Though it's very early, the first 2016 polling instead has generally shown her trimming Obama's deficit among whites both nationally and in key states. Ayres says that rather than hoping to increase their showing with whites, Republicans must prepare for "the likelihood that the Democratic nominee, particularly one who doesn't come from the far left wing of the party, will get [a] higher proportion of the white vote" than Obama did in 2012. "That means," Ayres adds, "Republicans have simply got to rethink the formula of how you get to 50-plus-1 percent."