Trump Preaching to Shrinking White Electorate Creates Problems for GOP

His anti-immigrant rhetoric and visceral stance on citizenship rights are forcing Republicans into opposing corners.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to guests gathered for a campaign event at the Grand River Center in Dubuque, Iowa.  (Scott Olson)

Exactly 19 years ago this week Bob Dole, as the recently chosen 1996 Republican presidential nominee, faced the same question that Donald Trump has presented his rivals today: whether to support ending the Constitution's guarantee of automatic citizenship for all children born in the U.S.

At the national convention that nominated Dole and Jack Kemp that summer, the party's platform called for revoking the provision in the 14th Amendment that ensured citizenship for all U.S.-born children, regardless of their parents' immigration status. Dole had remained vague on that plank during the convention, but in an appearance with Kemp before the National Association of Black Journalists on Aug. 23, 1996, the new nominee briskly rejected the idea.

''For generations, white children of white immigrants, regardless of their status, enjoyed citizenship,'' one reporter said to him, according to The New York Times. ''Now that the new immigrants are black and brown, would you support a constitutional amendment denying them citizenship?'' Dole's reply was unequivocal: "No."

For Dole, the choice of defending the 14th Amendment's promise of birthright citizenship "was a no-brainer," recalled Scott Reed, his campaign manager. "There were a handful of issues Dole just didn't agree with [in the platform] and he wasn't going to roll along without saying something."

Trump is proposing more sweeping change than the 1996 platform Dole repudiated.

The businessman argues that the 14th amendment does not, in fact, guarantee citizenship to the estimated 4.5 million U.S. born children of undocumented immigrants; if the courts agreed, that presumably would make those children subject to the deportation he pledges to pursue against all those here illegally.

But in responding to Trump, the 2016 Republicans have wavered far more than Dole did. About half of the GOP field (including Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Ben Carson) has also endorsed ending birthright citizenship, at least prospectively. Scott Walker quickly embraced the idea before backpedaling to reject it. Even the two candidates that most forthrightly rejected Trump’s call could not completely escape his gravitational pull.

Marco Rubio said he would not seek to change the constitution, but would take unspecified steps to combat those “taking advantage of the 14th amendment.”  Jeb Bush, while also rejecting constitutional change and praising America’s “diversity,” courted Trump’s constituency by adopting his incendiary “anchor babies” language.

This rightward lurch – behind an almost certainly hopeless cause of constitutional change – captures the core GOP dilemma now unfolding in the party’s nomination contest.

The Republican electoral coalition now relies on preponderant majorities from the groups most unsettled by demographic and cultural change: older, non-college and rural whites. There are no longer enough of those voters to guarantee Republicans a national majority: that’s why Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. Yet, as Trump’s rise shows, many of those voters militantly oppose the policies (like immigration reform) that might help the party expand its coalition.

By demonstrating that dynamic so viscerally, Trump’s ascent has further weakened the Republicans who contend the party must bend to, rather than resist, demographic change.

After Mitt Romney lost decisively in 2012 despite winning a greater share of white voters than Ronald Reagan did in 1980, the Republican National Committee’s official post-election review concluded the party “will lose future elections” without attracting a larger share of the growing minority vote. That impulse peaked in June 2013, when 14 Senate Republicans (led by Rubio and 2008 nominee John McCain) helped pass sweeping immigration reform that included a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

But with conservatives in revolt, the GOP current has since reversed. The House refused to consider the Senate bill, and instead repeatedly passed legislation to block President Obama’s executive orders providing legal status for some of the undocumented. Most Republican-led states sued to stop Obama’s executive action as well. Rubio repudiated his own bill. Now the 2016 Republican contenders are collectively offering an even harsher approach on immigration than Romney did when he embraced the “self-deportation” policy that discredited him with many Latinos and Asian Americans.

In summer 2013, conservative electoral analyst Sean Trende provided the rickety political theory that underpinned this reversal when he wrote that Romney lost not because he ran too poorly with people of color but because he failed to motivate enough right-leaning whites to vote. Though Trende didn’t endorse a specific policy agenda, conservatives embraced his theory as the justification for reviving a hardline immigration approach meant to excite the GOP’s nearly all-white base. Trump himself recently declared that Romney lost because “he didn’t do well with the Republicans--they didn’t go out and vote.”

Trump’s rise behind his belligerent immigration agenda has horrified many conservative thinkers. Perceptive conservative essayist Ben Domenech recently warned that Trump is leading the GOP “toward a coalition that is reduced to the narrow interests of identity politics for white people.”

Yet on immigration and other issues the GOP has already conceded much to the angry and often economically squeezed voters demanding exactly such a politics. Pacifying them won’t be easy now that Trump is promising even greater exertions (mass deportation, ending birthright citizenship) against the ethnic diversity recasting America.

In practice, no policy agenda can stop that demographic transformation. But Republican leaders may prove equally ineffectual at containing the white racial anxieties swelling Trump’s support.