When will Republicans face demographic reality?
In 2013, after the Republican Party had lost the popular vote for the fifth time in six elections, the Republican National Committee issued its “Growth and Opportunity Project” report — better known as the “autopsy report” — calling for the GOP to recognize and respond to the nation’s changing demographics. Under the heading “America Looks Different,” the report observed that whites would become a minority sometime in the 2040s. Unless greater numbers of Latinos, Asian Americans, and African Americans could be persuaded to vote Republican, the report’s authors warned, demographic changes would “tilt the playing field even more in the Democratic direction.”
Donald Trump, as the Republican presidential candidate in 2016, rejected virtually every recommendation advanced by the autopsy report and still managed to win, even while losing the popular vote. Although the movement toward the majority-minority crossover has continued apace during Trump’s presidency, the proposition that demographic change will deliver the Democrats an enduring electoral majority no longer seems as imminent as it once did.
In 2002, political demographer Ruy Teixeira co-authored the influential bestseller The Emerging Democratic Majority, which argued that a new Democratic voter base of minorities, women, and professionals was taking shape that would provide the basis for Democratic majorities for years to come. But Teixeira has always been careful to emphasize that he wasn’t predicting an irresistible demographic wave that would sweep Republicans into a permanent minority — particularly since the diversification of the electorate has lagged that of the population as a whole.
Teixeira, now with the Center for American Progress, is co-author (along with Rob Griffin and William Frey) of the States of Change: Demographics and Democracy series, which recently released its fifth annual report. The project — a collaboration of the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Brookings Institution, the Center for American Progress, and Democracy Fund — aims to examine what the changing demography of the nation will mean for American politics. The focus of this year’s report is on how demographic change is transforming the makeup of both the Republican and Democratic parties.
The report refrains from making predictions about which party is likely to benefit from the shifts that it describes. Two papers that accompany the report, however, do speculate on whether these changes will prove baneful or beneficial for the long-term political health of the Republican Party.
The report’s top-line finding is that the 2016 election “was the most demographically divisive election in the past 36 years. The parties were more divided by age, race, and education than in any prior election in modern political history.” Of particular note are the different trajectories of white voters — college-educated and non-college-educated — within both parties. From the time the U.S. was founded, white non-college-educated voters made up the sizable majority of both parties. As the educational attainment rates of young Americans have increased, however, the predominance of white noncollege voters has fallen dramatically, from 69 percent of the electorate in 1980 to only 44 percent in 2016. Accordingly, both political parties have seen a decline in the share of such voters within their ranks.
But while the share of white noncollege voters within the Republican Party fell from 76 to 60 percent, this group’s share within the Democratic Party fell by more than half, from 60 to 29 percent. In fact, 2016 marked the first election in history in which white college voters made up a greater share of Democratic voters than white noncollege voters (31 to 29 percent). And while white college voters had consistently made up a much larger share of Republican than Democratic voters, this flipped in 2016, as white college grads now comprise 31 percent of Democratic voters versus 28 percent of Republicans.
The other principal driver of U.S. demographic change over the past four decades has been a steady increase in immigration from Asia and Central and South America. Since minorities have tended to vote at lower rates than whites, this change has not been fully reflected in the makeup of the electorate. Even so, white voters’ share has fallen from 87 percent in 1980 to 74 percent in 2016. The Democratic Party historically has included more minority voters, who now make up two-fifths of the party. African Americans are the largest minority group in the party (making up 22 percent of Democratic voters in 2016) compared to Hispanics (12 percent) and Asian Americans and voters of other races (7 percent). Minorities continue to make up only a small part of the Republican Party, with Hispanics comprising 6 percent of GOP voters, Asian Americans 4 percent, and blacks 2 percent.
The report also notes that the U.S. population is aging. In 1980, just more than half of voters were under the age of 45, compared to only 38 percent in 2016. The number of voters between ages 18 and 29 has dropped significantly over that time (from 23 percent of the electorate to 16 percent), while the share of voters over age 65 has risen from 17 to 24 percent. Interestingly, while the two parties were very similar in terms of age composition in 1980, voters younger than 45 now lean increasingly Democratic, while older voters lean increasingly Republican.
Looking ahead to 2036, the report projects that both parties will experience generational change and will become more diverse. As far as the Republican Party is concerned, the report foresees that in sixteen years, white Millennial and Generation Z voters will have developed a large presence in the GOP, while white noncollege voters will have shrunk to just over half (51 percent) of Republican voters. The report’s authors run various scenarios incorporating alternative assumptions about rates of turnout and party support for different groups, but they conclude that none would make a real difference to the emerging makeup of the electorate and the parties’ coalitions. This indicates, in their view, “that most of the effect of demographic change on future party coalitions is already baked in and will reshape party coalitions — in a sense, whether these parties like it or not.”
The report’s most startling conclusion is that the Republican Party by 2036, almost regardless of the policies it pursues, will be one-fifth minority — 10 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian American and other races, and 3 percent black — simply because of the growth of minority groups and the continuing diminution of white noncollege voters. But will this projection become reality? At a time when Trump is whipping up racist and xenophobic bigotry against four congresswomen of color, it seems exceedingly unlikely. But two papers accompanying the report make the case that the Republican Party’s racial composition, and larger electoral fortunes, will depend on whether the national party will follow the path of the California or Texas state Republican parties.
Matt A. Barreto and Angela Gutierrez, in the first of these papers, point out that California has been a majority-minority state since the 2000 census, and in 2014 Hispanics surpassed whites to become the largest racial group in the state. If the rest of the country follows California’s political-demographic trajectory, the future will be dire indeed for the Republican Party.
California voted Republican in presidential elections for much of the 20th century, and produced the Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But the GOP has now been relegated to third-party status in the state: Republican registration ranks beneath both Democratic registration and “no party preference.” The party collapse didn’t happen solely because of demographic change. Rather, it took a combination of expanding numbers of Hispanic and Asian-American voters plus what Barreto and Gutierrez refer to as “reactionary politics.”
In 1994, the California Republican Party and its incumbent governor, Pete Wilson, backed Proposition 187, an initiative to deny all public services to immigrants in the state without legal permission and force state employees to report individuals suspected of illegal residence or entry to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for deportation. California Hispanics, who previously had split their votes between the two parties, recoiled from the GOP. Forty-six percent of Hispanic voters supported the Republican candidate for governor in 1986, and 47 percent in 1990. But starting in 1994, Hispanics voted heavily for Democrats and (with the exception of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial campaigns) have continued to do so ever since. Proposition 187 also galvanized greater numbers of Hispanics to become naturalized, to get engaged in politics, and to vote than had been the case before. The GOP’s continuing turn toward reactionary politics also alienated Asian American and younger white voters. In a 2016 paper for the Cato Institute, Alex Nowrasteh reviewed the California Republican Party’s turn toward nativism in the 1990s and concluded that its decision to represent the anti-immigration wing of the electorate had “destroyed that state’s GOP for at least a generation.” (In fairness to Wilson, some political observers believe that the California Republican Party’s downfall had as much to do with its rightward turn on other issues, such as abortion, as with Proposition 187.)
The Texas Republican Party, on the other hand, presents a more optimistic scenario of how the national GOP might deal with demographic change. Hispanics make up approximately equal percentages of the populations of both California and Texas, although California has a higher percentage of nonwhites in the overall population. In the 1990s, the Texas Republican Party declined to follow the California GOP’s example of political-demographic hara-kiri. Texas Republican gubernatorial candidate George W. Bush opposed Proposition 187-style nativist legislation, ran on a pro-immigration platform, and developed deep ties with the state’s Hispanic community. As a result, Bush’s share of the Hispanic vote jumped from 28 percent in 1994 to 50 percent in 1998 — while Dan Lungren, the California GOP gubernatorial candidate in 1998, received only 17 percent of the Hispanic vote.
Barreto and Gutierrez concur that the Texas GOP’s inclusionary approach successfully avoided the disruption of voting coalitions that occurred in California, although they also believe that the Texas Democratic Party did little to recruit new Latino voters in the 1990s and 2000s. They warn, however, that Republicans in the state legislature are starting to move in a nativist direction, for example by introducing SB 4 in 2016, which would have allowed officials to question the immigration status of persons detained or arrested by local law enforcement.
In addition, Trump’s denigration of immigrants and minorities, as well as his administration’s cruel policies at the border, may provoke Hispanics in Texas and other southwestern states to follow the pattern of California’s Hispanic voters. Similar dynamics seem to be taking place in Arizona, for example, where in 2010 Republicans proposed the “papers please” law (SB 1070) that would have allowed local and state police to ask for proof of citizenship during routine traffic stops. Some combination of local and presidential nativism may have been responsible for Kyrsten Sinema’s 2018 election as the first Democrat to win an Arizona Senate seat since 1995. It’s noteworthy that Hispanic turnout jumped from 27 percent in the 2014 midterms to 40.4 percent in 2018, a 50 percent increase, and that many observers credit this surge with Democratic Senate wins in Arizona and Nevada.
Patrick Ruffini, in the second paper accompanying the “States of Change” report, concedes that if straight-line projections bear out, “Republicans will cease to become a party that can win a national majority.” But since parties have always adapted to evolving demographic circumstances, he writes, then if Republicans need a new coalitional strategy, “the party will likely make a determined effort in that direction.” Trump’s 2016 strategy was itself a recognition that the GOP’s demographic makeup had changed and that free-market orthodoxy was less appealing to whites without college degrees, who comprised 60 percent of Republican voters.
Ruffini offers a few reasons why the movement toward a majority-minority society may not translate into a permanent Democratic electoral advantage anytime soon. First, minorities are concentrated in states that have not been competitive at the presidential level — including California and New York for Asian Americans, California and Texas for Hispanics. Minorities also tend to be underrepresented in battleground states. However, the States of Change report also finds that white noncollege voters are becoming less dominant over time among Republican voters in swing states, while a recent Axios report finds that nonwhite population growth has been fastest in the critical states of Florida and Texas, which supported Trump in 2016.
Second, Hispanics and Asian Americans may vote less uniformly Democratic over time as they become more established in the U.S. and intermarry, following the pattern of earlier immigrant groups such as the Irish. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, second-generation Americans with Hispanic/Latino roots are more likely than the first generation to consider themselves white rather than Hispanic; and if more Hispanics start to consider themselves white, the majority-minority crossover point may not in fact arrive in the mid-2040s. Further, according to Ruffini, researchers find higher rates of Republican identification among Hispanics who are U.S.-born, English-speaking, higher-income, and living in precincts with fewer people of the same ethnicity. Nonwhite Democrats also seem to be less ideologically polarized than white Democrats. While white Democrats identify as 59 percent liberal to 36 percent moderate/conservative, nonwhites identify as 46 percent liberal to 45 percent moderate/conservative.
Finally, demographic realities may compel the Republican Party to appeal to minorities in ways it currently does not. Trump secured 61 percent of the two-party white vote in 2016, more than any candidate since Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory in 1984. But even if a Republican were able to get as much as 65 percent of that vote in 2036 — just shy of the 66 percent Ronald Reagan received in 1984 — the candidate still would have to do better among Hispanics and Asian Americans than Trump did in 2016 in order to win, according to Ruffini’s calculations. If that candidate’s share of the white vote is identical to Trump’s, he or she will need to win an estimated 15 percent of the black vote, 42 percent of the Hispanic vote, and 45 percent of the Asian American vote.
That seems an improbable outcome right now, given all that Trump is doing to cultivate white identity politics. But Ruffini argues that most minorities, like the bulk of Trump’s supporters, are working class — 7 in 10 nonwhites will not have a college degree in 2036. If it becomes evident over the next few election cycles that nativist populism is a losing formula for the GOP in a changing America, while the Democratic Party’s move toward cultural liberalism alienates some of its minority supporters, the Republican Party might keep the populism but drop the nativism. Ruffini believes that beginning with the 2016 campaign, Democrats “surrendered large swaths of the working-class Midwest and potentially created an opening among nonwhites who are economically to the left but not uniformly left of center on social and cultural issues.”
A Republican effort to fill that vacuum, however, would require the GOP to welcome rather than resist diversity, to make serious outreach efforts to minority voters, and to adopt positions that such voters would find appealing rather than alienating. The Republican Party won’t move in that direction so long as Trump remains at the helm, but the GOP’s long-term future likely depends on its ability to reinvent itself as a big-tent party.