Harry Enten of The Guardian argues that there is no reason to believe that the GOP needs to adjust its policy positions to win elections. This may well be true. As Sean Trende often observes, the two major party coalitions are still very evenly matched, and the larger a given major party coalition becomes, the more difficult it is to keep it together. I can definitely imagine a scenario in which tensions within the Democratic coalition lead to Republican victories in future elections.
Yet Sean acknowledges that Republicans have “something of a choice to make“:
One option is to go after these downscale whites. As I’ll show in Part 2, it can probably build a fairly strong coalition this way. Doing so would likely mean nominating a candidate who is more Bush-like in personality, and to some degree on policy. This doesn’t mean embracing “big government” economics or redistribution full bore; suspicion of government is a strain in American populism dating back at least to Andrew Jackson. It means abandoning some of its more pro-corporate stances. This GOP would have to be more “America first” on trade, immigration and foreign policy; less pro-Wall Street and big business in its rhetoric; more Main Street/populist on economics.
For now, the GOP seems to be taking a different route, trying to appeal to Hispanics through immigration reform and to upscale whites by relaxing its stance on some social issues. I think this is a tricky road to travel, and the GOP has rarely been successful at the national level with this approach. It certainly has to do more than Mitt Romney did, who at times seemed to think that he could win the election just by corralling the small business vote. That said, with the right candidate it could be doable. It’s certainly the route that most pundits and journalists are encouraging the GOP to travel, although that might tell us more about the socioeconomic standing and background of pundits and journalists than anything else.
Of course, the most successful Republican politicians have been those who can thread a needle between these stances: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and (to a lesser degree) Bush 43 have all been able to talk about conservative economic stances without horrifying downscale voters. These politicians are rarities, however, and the GOP will most likely have to make a choice the next few cycles about which road it wants to travel.
Sean characterizes his first option as an appeal to downscale whites, yet it is worth noting that it is also more likely to appeal to middle-income Latinos and African Americans than the second option, an approach that is more consistent with the status quo in many respects while relying somewhat more heavily on identity politics.
To get a sense of why Sean’s first option might represent a wiser path than sticking with the status quo, consider Ruy Teixeira’s recent analysis of Georgia’s changing demographic composition:
In the last decade, Georgia had a rapid rate of increase in its minority population, going from 37 to 44 percent minority over the time period. The increase in the minority population accounted for 81 percent of Georgia’s growth over the decade. Unusually, the biggest contributor to minority growth came from blacks, who alone accounted for 39 percent of Georgia’s growth. The next largest contributor was Hispanics, whose numbers increased at a scorching 96 percent pace and accounted for 26 percent of the state’s growth.
By 2020, along with Nevada and Maryland, Georgia is almost certain to join the ranks of majority-minority states. These ongoing shifts should continue to move Georgia in a more competitive direction.
The geographical locus of that change will likely be in the burgeoning Atlanta metropolitan area, whose share of the statewide vote continues to grow (up to 54 percent in the 2012 election).
Ruy goes on to observe that Barack Obama carried metropolitan Atlanta in 2008 and 2012, albeit by relatively narrow margins, and that he expects the minority share of eligible voters in 2012 to increase by 3.5 percentage points by 2016. Barring some radical change in the political allegiance of black, Latino, and Asian voters in Georgia, this will tend to shave the GOP advantage in the state, making it winnable for the right Democratic candidate. It is certainly possible that a more populist Republican candidate could win a larger share of Georgia’s white electorate and increase the white share of Georgia’s electorate by persuading 2012 fence-sitters to come to the polls. Yet a more populist Republican would by definition be a candidate who embraced some brand of reform and modernization.
The conceptual problem with Enten’s piece, in my view, is that some measure of “adjustment” is inevitable, as the issue mix changes from election cycle to election cycle. Issues that were not salient in 2012 will be salient come 2016, and the process of taking a stand on emerging issues will necessarily entail shifts of emphasis, etc. The central claim made by conservative reformers or reform conservatives (or whatever we’re called this week) is that the party still needs a compelling post-Reagan, post-crisis domestic policy agenda that resonates with middle-income voters. A related claim is that though, as Enten notes, the average voter felt that Mitt Romney was closer to them ideologically than Barack Obama, this didn’t mean that the average voter felt that Romney’s policy agenda was more responsive to her needs and concerns, which is the more salient question.