We may well be at a political tipping point that could mark a dramatic change in American politics.
After decades of Democratic Party dominance that began with the formation of the New Deal coalition, Ronald Reagan ushered in an era of relative party parity. But a deep fracture in the GOP, combined with crucial demographic changes — among Hispanics and Asians, of course, but even more importantly among younger voters — could be about to change that.
If that change is under way, it would confirm the analysis of the late journalist and political analyst Samuel Lubell, who wrote in his award-winning book “The Future of American Politics” (1952), “We find relatively few periods when the major parties were closely competitive, with elections alternating between one and the other. The usual pattern has been that of a dominant majority party, which stayed in office as long as its elements held together, and a minority party which gained power only when the majority coalition split.”
The current Republican majority in the House of Representatives, which owes its existence to the results of the 2010 elections, should not obscure what is happening around the country: The party is at risk of reverting to minority status.
If this happens, it would not mean that Republicans could never win elections — Dwight D. Eisenhower won the White House in 1952 and 1956 — and it certainly would not mean that the GOP can’t win the presidency in 2016. But it does suggest that — unless the party changes its current trajectory — Republican successes will depend primarily on Democratic failures.
The split in the GOP between “establishment conservatives,” who see compromise as a necessary part of government, and “anti- establishment conservatives,” for whom compromise is akin to caving in to opponents, obviously has damaged the party during the past four years. And there is no end in sight to the infighting.
Republicans have looked divided, extreme and inept, and the “anti-establishment” wing of the party has often seemed more interested in defeating establishment Republicans in primaries than in defeating Democrats in the fall.
I was surprised recently when a veteran Republican operative who has no love lost for Democrats or liberals told me that his party would be better off without the gerrymandered control of the House.
His reason was that too many House districts have produced GOP members of Congress who don’t need to appeal to swing voters and don’t even care about the political views of independents and ticket-splitters. His party, he argued, would be better off with more members of Congress who understood the need to appeal to a broad array of constituents.
But if Republican infighting is a problem for party leaders and damages the Republican brand, the long-term demographic trend favoring Democrats is potentially disastrous for the GOP.
Yes, there is plenty of reason for Republican strategists to be concerned about Hispanic and Asian voting patterns and trends, but party leaders can’t afford to ignore what has happened with younger voters.
In both the 1984 and 1988 presidential elections, the GOP nominee did about as well with younger voters, those age 18-29, as he did with all voters.
According to New York Times/CBS News exit polling, Ronald Reagan drew 59 percent of the vote in his 1984 mauling of Democrat Walter Mondale and 59 percent of 18-29 year olds. Four years later, Republican George H.W. Bush defeated Democrat Michael Dukakis with 53 percent nationally and 52 percent among 18- to 29-year-olds.
In 2000, voters 18-29 again didn’t look much different than the overall electorate. Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush each won 48 percent of the electorate and about 47 percent of the 18-29 age group.
Last year, of course, the president beat Mitt Romney 60 percent to 37 percent among voters 18-29 years of age, a much better showing than Obama’s 4-point win in the final popular vote (though not as good as his 66 percent showing among younger voters in 2008).
Romney, on the other hand, easily beat Obama among voters 45 and older, many of whom came of age politically during the Reagan years or whose views were formed by the Gipper’s brand of conservatism.
Romney did carry white voters in the 18-29 age group last year, but by only 51 percent to 44 percent. In contrast, he won whites 65 years and older by 61 percent to 39 percent and whites 45-64 by 61 percent to 38 percent.
Democrats start with an advantage with an age cohort that will participate in elections for the next 50 years and will be replacing older voters in the electorate — the most Romney age cohort in 2012 — over the next two decades.
Yes, the current crop of younger voters will likely grow more conservative over the years, and possibly more Republican, and it is certainly possible that Obama’s appeal to younger voters was unique. But Republican strategists have to consider the possibility that younger voters have different values and views than their parents have now and had when they were 20 or 25 years old.
Merely assuming that 2008 and 2012 Obama voters who were between the ages of 18 and 29 will fade away into political oblivion is not a recipe for a Republican political comeback.
Stuart Rothenberg (@stupolitics) is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report (rothenbergpoliticalreport.com).