In the aftermath of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat, a Republican report concluded that “unless changes are made” to expand the party’s appeal, it would be difficult for the GOP to “win another presidential election in the near future.”
Three years after that report urged Republicans nationally to aggressively seek the votes of women, Hispanics, African-Americans and younger people, the party is facing a potential scenario that seemed inconceivable when Republican George H.W. Bush trounced Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988 for the party’s fifth win in six elections.
If the Republicans lose in November, it will have lost the popular vote in all but one presidential election over 28 years, a record of GOP electoral futility not seen in a half-century.
It’s too early to write off the November election as a foregone conclusion. Hillary Clinton and the Democrats have their own share of hurdles to overcome. But poll after poll shows each of the voting blocs mentioned in the 2013 report are currently leaning toward the Democratic presidential nominee, and most analysts believe that spells electoral trouble for the party and its presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
Rather than adopt the recommendations of the 2013 report, Trump and other Republicans “just chose not to follow it,” said Jim Manley, a former adviser to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
There were troubling signs for the GOP long before Trump launched his campaign for president. Analysts warned the party had lurched right during the past four decades, failed to adapt to demographic changes that have diluted the voting power of whites, and too often invoked the nostalgic memory of President Ronald Reagan, who is an icon to older Republicans but a fuzzy image to younger Americans.
Although Republicans control both the U.S. House and Senate and hold the governor’s offices in 34 states, the 2013 report flatly concluded at the presidential level “much of what Republicans are doing is not working beyond the core constituencies” that form the GOP.
“Republicans have been appealing to their core voters, which are enough to carry the mid-term elections,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College in California. “But in the broader general elections, they have a bigger problem and that problem is going to grow.”
Former Trump adviser Barry Bennett has a slightly different view. He thinks the New York billionaire’s message that international trade agreements have savagely impacted millions of blue-collar Americans is resonating with the “real people” the party needs to attract to broaden its appeal.
At the same time, however, he criticizes the party’s messaging, which he says is out-of-date and ineffective and says, “We have become the party of corporate America.”
Bennett argues that Ohio is “redder today than it has been in three decades,” but that too many Republicans believe you can reach those voters with the same tactics used in the past.
“These so- called experts view the electorate as static. It is not,” he said. “There are 18 million people who voted for George W. Bush in 2004 who are now dead.”
The Republican Party’s slump in national elections follows an alternating pattern in American politics of dominance by one party over the other.
After losing seven of nine presidential elections from 1932 through 1964, Republican presidential candidates won five of six elections from 1968 through 1988.
George W. Bush won the electoral vote in both 2000 and 2004, but won the popular vote just once, in 2004. That means Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential contests.
The country’s demographics partly explain why. In 2012 when Romney lost to President Barack Obama, 72 percent of those who voted in the election were white; when Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter in 1980, 88 percent of the voters were white.
Voter turnout among women exceeded that of men for the first time in 1980, and the gap has only grown in favor of women since. Hispanics made up 7 percent of the electorate in 2000 compared to 10 percent in 2012.
Those haven’t translated into positive trends for Republican candidates.
“In every election since 1980 we have seen a gender gap in voting, and when you break that down women are more likely to vote for the Democratic candidate than their Republican counterparts,” said Kelly Dittmar, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and a scholar for that school’s Center for American Women and Politics.
There is also evidence, said Dittmar, that the Republican Party “has moved to the right” and away from the those in the middle of the political spectrum who often determine presidential elections.
In 1972, the Republican platform glowingly spoke of social programs such as Head Start and Food Stamps while the 2016 platform complained about the growth in Food Stamps to 45.8 million people, and asserting “this is the progressive pathology: Keeping people dependent so that government can redistribute income.”
The 1976 Republican platform mentioned the word “abortion” five times, partly in the context that abortion “is one of the most difficult and controversial” issues “of our time.” By 2016, the word abortion appeared in the platform 35 times and emphasized the party’s opposition to abortion rights.
The 1972 Republican platform also boasted about supporting the Equal Rights Amendment and creating the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, while the 2016 GOP platform advocated transforming the EPA into an independent bipartisan commission similar to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“There are some things that are immediate turnoffs against younger voters and coming out against the EPA is a sure way to turn off younger voters,” said Pitney.
The 2013 GOP report had a similar warning. “Young voters,” it said, “are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the party represents.”
‘Not particularly relevant’
In the Republican presidential primaries and debates, candidate after candidate expressed a yearning for the Reagan years.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich tried to resurrect Reagan’s image so many times Sen. Gordon Humphrey, R-N.H., jokingly called him “Ronald Reagan’s son.”
But Reagan doesn’t necessarily connect with younger voters, or even those approaching middle age. He left office nearly 30 years ago and no one younger than 50 ever voted for him.
Bennett said Reagan is “not particularly relevant” to today’s voters.
“The problem is our party hasn’t appealed to anybody in quite a long time,” he said “We talk about pro-growth policies instead of increasing paychecks. We talk about limited government as opposed to improving your lives. Our talking points are horrid.”
Thank you for reading the Springfield News-Sun and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to your daily ePaper and premium newsletters.
Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Springfield News-Sun. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.