Is the Republican Party Doomed?

By Kip Beckman Created: November 15, 2012 Last Updated: November 15, 2012
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As Republicans try to pick up the pieces from another big defeat, many are asking themselves “How could we lose to a President running with an unemployment rate close to 8 percent and consumer confidence mired well below levels that existed prior to the ‘Great Recession’ of 2008-2009?”

Even a change in tone may not be enough to swing the tide in their favour.

While there are many factors that contributed to the President’s victory, one of the main reasons is shifting demographic trends. And these trends will make it even more difficult for the Republican Party to win future presidential elections without some fundamental changes to their message.

Since 2008, more than 10 million new voters have registered, and many are Hispanics. In key battleground states including Florida, Virginia, Colorado and Nevada, exit polls clearly showed that these new voters swung the tide in the incumbent President’s favour. Hispanics increased their share of the total electorate to 10 percent, up from 9 percent in 2008.

In Florida, a state that the Republicans felt they would win, Hispanic voters increased by close to 200,000 over the last four years. For the entire country, four million new Hispanic voters were registered; and they voted overwhelmingly for the President. In 2008, 67 percent of Hispanics voted for the Democrats, and this share grew to 71 percent in the election last Tuesday.

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that conservative Texas could become a Democratic state in a few decades based on demographic trends.

The Republicans could counteract this trend and increase their appeal among Hispanic voters by changing the rhetoric (and the underlying policy thinking) on the hot-button issue of immigration, and in particular illegal immigration. Supporting policies that favour providing some rights for the children of illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. and become citizens could be a step in the right direction.

However, even a change in tone may not be enough to swing the tide in their favour. Hispanic household income is currently only two-thirds of the income of non-Hispanic whites and they have less education as well. These disparities remain, even for second- and third-generation Hispanics. For instance, third-generation Hispanics are only half as likely to have a college degree when compared to non-Hispanic whites. The Democratic Party has historically favoured policies supporting income redistribution and programs that help the poor. It will, therefore, be difficult for Republicans to break the Democrats’ hold on Hispanic voters without appealing to their economic interests.

At the same time, the Republican base has been dominated by a decreasing number of older, white voters mainly living in rural areas of the South and mid-West (as well as some rich people who don’t want their taxes increased). The share of white voters declined to 72 from 74 percent in 2008. As a point of comparison, white voters comprised 87 percent of the electorate as recently as 1992. Governor Romney won the white vote by a huge margin—59 to 39 percent—but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Democrat’s huge lead among minority voters.

The problem for the Republican Party going forward is that these demographic trends will only intensify over the long term. Analysis by the Bank Credit Analyst reveals that the share of Hispanic voters will increase from around 10 percent today to over 20 percent by 2050. At the same time, the share of non-Hispanic white voters will drop from slightly more than 70 percent to less than 60 percent by 2050. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that conservative Texas could become a Democratic state in a few decades based on demographic trends.

Political parties can and do make policy changes following defeats. There is little doubt that both the Democrats and Republicans have managed to reinvent themselves numerous times over the past couple of centuries. After all, the Republicans were once the party of Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves. Mind you, that was over 140 years ago. Now is another time for such re-invention.

Kip Beckman is the principal economist for the Conference Board of Canada.

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