To understand the rolling demographic and cultural trends threatening the GOP in presidential elections, a good place to start might be with the polychromatic ads Chevrolet is running during the Olympics.
First, consider the source. Chevrolet is not a company that equates buying its product with saving the planet. It doesn't champion the rain forest, organic farmers, or artisanal suppliers with beards like Civil War soldiers. In the past, its ads have linked the company, without apparent irony, to "baseball, hot dogs, [and] apple pie."
But Chevy's latest ads, under the title "The New Us," celebrate the transformation of the American family into a kaleidoscopic array of new forms. In cascading images, one ad warmly portrays couples of every race and ethnicity, interracial couples, gay male couples, gay female couples — all raising what appear to be happy, well-adjusted children. Not only does Heather have two mommies; in the world Chevrolet evokes, she's perfectly fine with it. "While what it means to be a family hasn't changed, what a family looks like, has," the ad intones. "This is the new us."
The "new us" bears more than a passing resemblance to the new coalition that has allowed Democrats to win the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. As the veteran Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg has said, the modern Democratic national coalition is essentially diverse America and the portions of white America (largely white-collar whites, especially women) who are comfortable with diverse America.
That doesn't mean, by any count, that all of the GOP coalition is uneasy with the trends of growing racial diversity and acceptance of homosexuality the Chevrolet ad evokes. But it is fair to say that the portions of American society most uneasy about these changes — particularly many blue-collar, older, and rural whites — are concentrated within that coalition.
Separate polling in 2012 by National Journal and the Pew Research Center, for instance, found that whites split about evenly on whether America's growing diversity upholds the nation's traditions or is changing them too fast — and that the whites who feared the change overwhelmingly preferred Mitt Romney to President Obama. Although polls now consistently show majority support for gay marriage, not more than one-fourth of Republicans agree, only modestly more than 15 years ago. This cultural fault-line looms as the greatest barrier Republicans must cross to win back the White House in 2016. In many ways, opportunities for the GOP are expanding. The inability of the economy to accelerate beyond second gear has corroded Obama's support, particularly among working-class whites who have always been the most dubious of him. Though implementation of Obama's health reform plan has undeniably improved — and is steadily building an economic constituency of patients and providers committed to the program — its overall public standing remains weak, with most Americans (especially whites) doubting it will help them personally.
These currents are converging to produce serious risk for Democrats in the midterm elections. The risks are compounded because the critical battleground for 2014 is the seven Democratic-held Senate seats in states that voted for Romney over Obama in 2012. These are almost all whiter, older, blue-collar states (like West Virginia and Arkansas) where there isn't enough of "the new us" to mobilize a majority. Those dynamics could easily tip the Senate back into Republican control this fall, and preserve or even slightly expand their House majority.
Yet Republicans could make those gains without addressing any of the cultural barriers that confront them in presidential contests, which draw a larger, younger, and more diverse electorate. The evidence, in fact, suggests that Republicans are further from addressing those challenges than they were the day after Obama's reelection. The rush by GOP leaders to champion Phil Robertson, the Duck Dynasty star, after his recent anti-gay remarks shows the pressure the party faces to reflect those disapproving beliefs. That pressure is even more vivid in the decision by House Republican leaders to shelve legislation barring workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation — and the fact that every Senate Republican considering the 2016 presidential race felt compelled to vote against it when the bill passed that chamber, even though polls show two-thirds of Americans support the idea.
House Speaker John Boehner captured an even larger problem last week when he abandoned immigration reform just days after unveiling "principles" that might have produced a deal. Though some analysts see a strategic retreat designed to resurface an initiative later, Boehner's abject surrender has emboldened the party's immigration opponents in a manner that will make it tougher for the House to ever act, or for the party's 2016 candidates to reposition themselves on the issue. It's not hard to draw a line between Boehner's capitulation and the first 2016 GOP presidential debate where Sean Hannity asks anyone who supports "President Obama's amnesty" to raise his hand.
With its "The New Us" commercial, Chevrolet (like Coca-Cola and Cheerios in similarly themed recent ads) acknowledged it is competing in a changing America. The GOP's recent actions suggest it still hasn't crossed that threshold.