GOP Civil War: Whites Aren't Voting Republican Anymore, So Who Can They Rely On Now?


"This is the last time anyone will try to do this," said a Republican strategist during the 2012 campaign. He meant that was the last time that a Republican presidential candidate would focus largely on white voters in order to win the White House. This single-minded focus on the white vote was proved to be wholly inadequate, because the Mitt Romney campaign still lost the election badly. That electoral drubbing demonstrates that Republicans can no longer rely on the votes of the white working class and Southerners to win the presidency.

The coalition that Franklin Roosevelt put together provided the political muscle that permitted the Democratic Party to dominate American politics for more than thirty years. The disintegration of that coalition at the end of the 1960s was a boon to the Grand Old Party. Its breakdown was mainly the result of the backlash against civil rights legislation that was passed under Lyndon Johnson. It was not lost on President Johnson that the Democratic Party would pay a heavy political price for enacting those laws. After signing the legislation, President Johnson predicted that the party would lose the South for a generation.

President Johnson proved prophetic. The South was heretofore a one-party region. The southern states were solidly Democratic following the civil war. The Roosevelt coalition included two major groups: southerners and white ethnic groups in the North, among others. As was predicted by Johnson, Southerners switched their allegiance to the Republican Party. Working class voters in the North also fled from the Democratic Party in droves.

Ever since, these two groups of voters have found a home in the Republican Party. This reconstituted coalition gave Republicans a major electoral advantage. From 1968 to 1988, voters had to vote in six different presidential elections. Republican presidential candidates won five of those elections. In fact, three of those elections ended in landslide victories for the Republican candidates.

The election of 1988 where George Herbert Bush won a major victory was the high point for the coalition that propelled Republicans to the White House in those five elections. It became a much different story for Republican presidential candidates in the next 20 years. There have been six presidential elections during the 1990s and 2000s; the GOP candidates lost four of those elections. They also lost the popular vote five times.

In the run-up to the last presidential election, many Republicans convinced themselves that they were going to win the presidency. Despite winning 59% of the white vote, Mitt Romney still suffered a major loss. Following his defeat, many in the party have been engaging in some proverbial soul-searching. There has been some recognition on the part of many Republicans that the party would need to reach out to minority voters, particularly Hispanic, in order to increase their chances of winning back the White House.

Before the election, most of the leading voices in the Republican Party were staunchly opposed to immigration reform. In an effort to endear himself to the Tea Party activists, Romney assailed Governor Rick Perry (R-Texas), for giving in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who attend public universities in the Lone Star state. Romney also advocated self-deportation as a remedy for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Like the conversion that Apostle Paul underwent on the road to Damascus, many prominent conservatives are undergoing their own conversion with regards to immigration reform. Right-wing commentators Sean Hannity and Charles Krauthammer are a case in point. Before the election, they vehemently opposed to any immigration reform that would provide a path to citizenship. After the election, they suddenly softened their stance. They are now more open to comprehensive immigration reform that includes this very provision.

Many Republicans have come to realize that it would be highly unlikely for the party to retake the White House without a much better showing among Hispanics. The abrupt change by many conservatives on the issue of immigration is an indication that they recognize that their party’s heavy reliance on white votes to win presidential elections is no longer a wise strategy.

To remain a viable political party in the decades ahead, the GOP must seek to free itself from its hardened ideology that only appeals to a shrinking base of voters. To reach out to minorities, especially Hispanics, conservatives would need to discard their reflexive anti-government stance. Most minority voters believe that the government could play an important role in providing opportunities for people, to help them pursue their pwn dreams.

Cosmetic changes such as nominating Marco Rubio, the young Cuban-American senator from Florida, would not necessarily be enough to bring Hispanic, let alone other minority voters into the Republican tent. As was evident in his response to the President Obama's 2013 State of the Union, Rubio continues to espouse the same policies that minority voters soundly rejected in the last presidential election. To be successful in their appeal to minorities, Republicans must start taking the role of the government seriously. The notion that the "government is the problem" does not comport with the view holds by the emerging coalition, or the "coalition of the ascendant" as Ronald Brownstein characterized it.

The Republican Party was the party of choice for a majority of the electorate for many decades. Its base of voters, however, no longer constitutes the majority of the country. The GOP must attract new voters — i.e. more young people, minorities, and more women — in order to remain a national party. To make it happen, the GOP has to embrace policies that matter to these voters. If the Republican Party is unable or unwilling to do so, the GOP will soon become a regional party.