After Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, establishment Republicans, citing unfavorable demographic trends, called for the GOP to improve its performance with growing ethnic minorities. Donald Trump, seemingly poking his finger in the eye of this establishment, pursued the opposite course, attracting more support from white voters without college degrees whose ranks were shrinking but becoming more Republican.
Demographic trends remain tough for Republicans, and a new study released Monday by a coalition of think tanks confirms this. The GOP would benefit from boosting support among new immigrant groups and doubling down on the white working class. But going forward, the Trump strategy of increasing support among non college whites over expanding its vote share among immigrant groups has advantages in both the popular vote and the electoral college, and will likely be at least a part of future GOP election game plans.
The 2018 States of Change report is the first in this series to analyze forward-looking demographic changes, factoring in the 2016 election results, and the first to break down trends among college and non-college white voters. The study’s big picture is not unfamiliar: Trends in demography have electoral consequences, and the GOP is generally on the losing end of these shifts.
Take for example the report’s “status quo” scenario. If party support and turnout rates among all voting groups remain unchanged from 2016, the shift in demographics would lead the Democrats to victory in 2020, with Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin going back to the blue column. Future elections would trend even more Democratic.
The “demographics as destiny” argument for Democrats can be overstated, as it was after 2008. With hindsight, it is easy to see now that President Barack Obama increased turnout among black voters to a degree that may be difficult for other Democrats to match. Hillary Clinton would have won had she been able to duplicate black voting patterns from 2012. Also, some skepticism is warranted about long-term projections. As Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics points out, Latinos and other immigrant groups may eventually begin to look more like whites in their voting tendencies, mimicking earlier waves of immigrants. And perhaps more young voters will move into the Republican camp as they age.
Despite these caveats, the general trends are poor for Republicans. In almost all of our scenarios, Democrats improve their performance in the popular vote and electoral college as their groups grow as a share of the electorate and Republican groups shrink.
What about the two dueling GOP strategies of expanding support among immigrant groups or further increasing support among non-college whites? Clearly, Republicans would benefit from increased backing from either group. A 7.5-point boost in support among immigrants would lead to GOP victories in 2020, 2024 and 2028, although Democrats would win starting in 2032. Alternatively, a 5-point increase in GOP support among non-college whites would lead to Republican electoral college victories at least through 2036.
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To the extent that there is a trade-off between these strategies, increased support for Republicans among non-college voters is generally more significant because while it will shrink over time, it still represents a very large percentage of eligible voters: 47 percent in 2016.
In contrast, a boost in the Republican vote share among immigrant groups combined with a return to lower 2012 levels of support from non-college whites would lead to Democratic victories, beginning in 2020.
Similarly, in a trade-off between non-college and college whites, at least in the short term or midterm, the GOP would do better by increasing its share among the former and decreasing support among the latter.
The most troubling scenario for Republicans is that while support is growing among non-college whites, they are losing both college-educated whites and ethnically diverse voters. If the trade-off is that stark, the party will have trouble winning any future election.
There are many ways to win elections, and the future is not certain. While demographic trends do generally favor Democrats, the large group of white voters without college degrees will be very significant for both parties’ electoral chances long into the future. The courting of that vote and the trade-offs that may arise will say a lot about the presidential elections in the next 40 years.
John C. Fortier is director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Democracy Project, the author of “Absentee and Early Voting: Trends, Promises and Perils,” the author and editor of “After the People Vote: A Guide to the Electoral College,” and the author and co-editor with Norman Ornstein of “Second Term Blues: How George W. Bush Has Governed.”
The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.