Politics & Policy

Can the GOP Overcome Demographic Change in Red States?

(Illustration: Roman Genn)
Republicans must adapt to a diversifying electorate or lose their influence.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article first appeared in the November 7, 2016, issue of NR.

Prescott Valley, Ariz.; Salem, Va. — Lee Stauffacher and Pam McKinney love their home state of California — its paradisiacal climate, its sublime topography — but they had to leave. The state had been overrun, first by immigrants legal and illegal, their cultures and traditions in tow, and then by liberal politicians who seized control of the government by catering to these constituencies and turning their communities into Democratic garrisons. The state became majority-minority in 2001; whites are now 39 percent of its population and dwindling. In turn, the GOP is essentially extinct, representing conservative enclaves around California but irrelevant in statewide elections.

So Stauffacher and McKinney, a staunchly Republican couple in their 60s, moved last year to Kingman, an 82 percent–white town in Arizona’s ultraconservative northwest corner. They figured, given the state’s ideological reputation — owing to hawkish immigration policies championed by generations of GOP officeholders as well as Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio — it was the ideal regional antidote to California.

But not for much longer. Over the last 25 years, the state’s Hispanic population has tripled, and whites have gone from 74 percent of the population to 54 percent. Minorities will be the majority by 2022. Arizona’s changing population means a changing electorate; and a changing electorate usually means a changing government. Stauffacher and McKinney, it seems, can’t escape this cycle.

They woke early one October morning and drove three hours east here, to Prescott Valley, where Donald Trump was campaigning. The area is rural and overwhelmingly white — hardly representative of Arizona, but perfect for reaching his core audience. Some 20,000 people came, law enforcement estimated, though only a fraction could squeeze inside the event center for Trump’s speech. Stauffacher and McKinney were among them.

“When I listen to Donald Trump, I hear the America I grew up in. He wants to make things like they used to be,” McKinney, a retired court clerk, says afterward. “Where I grew up, in the San Joaquin Valley, it was a good, solid community, but it fell apart when the government started pandering to all of these immigrants who don’t understand our culture and don’t want to assimilate.” She stiffens. “I’m okay with immigrants as long as they’re legal. But they need to assimilate to our culture. They can have their culture at home. In public, you’re an American. They’re celebrating their own holidays instead of ours.”

“The good people like us are leaving California because of all that — the influx of immigrants, many of them illegal, who are getting state ID cards, welfare benefits, and other government programs, and not even assimilating,” says Stauffacher, 65. “And now it’s happening here. This state is up for grabs.” A Navy veteran and a retired engineer, he shakes his head in disgust. “The entire country is changing because they’re letting people in who will only vote for Democrats.”

Stauffacher is right: The United States is experiencing a sweeping and unprecedented demographic transformation. It’s becoming younger, more diverse, more urban, more secular, and better educated. These trends show no sign of reversal and portend ominously for today’s GOP, which depends heavily on older, white, rural, working-class, religious voters. This isn’t lost on Trump’s loyal supporters. In dozens of interviews across numerous states, they express uniform disapproval of the change swirling around them. They want a return to the America of their youth. But Trump cannot deliver that; nobody can. The country will soon look very different. And the biggest contributor to that change — the single trend that could propel the GOP toward oblivion — is the ethnic diversification of the electorate.

Republicans have failed for the past half century to attract non-white voters. Richard Nixon won 32 percent of non-whites in 1960, according to Gallup; no GOP nominee has approached that number since. (George W. Bush won 22 percent of non-whites in 2004.) This was not an existential threat when Democrats won the White House in 1992; after all, white voters had cast 87 percent of those ballots. But whites’ vote share has declined in every election since, from 83 percent in 1996 to 72 percent in 2012. Today, whites are 69 percent of America’s eligible voters. By 2024, that number will be 64 percent, the Census Bureau estimates; by 2044, it will be 54 percent.

Republicans have carried the white vote in every general election since 1968. But that’s not enough anymore: Mitt Romney won whites, 59 percent to 39 percent, in 2012, but President Obama won the overall popular vote by nearly 5 million. How? Romney won just 17 percent of non-whites, including 27 percent of Hispanics, the electorate’s fastest-growing group.

This is a math problem for the Republican party, and its elected officials differ sharply over potential solutions. Some Republicans believe that salvation lies in comprehensive immigration reform; they say it will fix a broken system once and for all, while demonstrating the party’s compassion toward Hispanics and depriving Democrats of a devastatingly effective wedge issue. But many of their comrades see it differently: Any comprehensive endeavor would necessarily promise legalization, if not full-fledged citizenship, to parts of the undocumented community, and would include higher levels of legal immigration as well. This, they say, would add to the electorate even more less-skilled, low-income immigrants, many of whom might never warm to the GOP regardless of its modulation on immigration. (Ronald Reagan legalized nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants in 1986; only 30 percent of Hispanics voted Republican in 1988, compared with 37 percent in 1984.) To be clear, the party’s predicament isn’t limited to Hispanics. Blacks and Asians, another fast-growing voting bloc, have also turned against the GOP in large numbers. Because of this, some believe that Republicans should prioritize issues — poverty, education, the welfare state — that would mend their image among all non-whites, not just Hispanics. That said, it’s impossible to quantify how much doing so would endear the GOP to minorities; it’s similarly impossible to quantify how much passing immigration reform would improve the party’s standing with Hispanics. What is quantifiable is the historic rate at which the country and the electorate are diversifying. And because Hispanics are the main driver, immigration reform continues to be the subject of intense disagreement inside the Republican party.

This divide is equal parts ideological and geographic. The majority of reform advocates are politically center-right and hail from rapidly diversifying states and congressional districts, whereas opponents are typically tea-party conservatives who are concentrated in heavily white patches of flyover country. They represent the binary worldviews of their constituents and of the Republican base: on one end, comfortable with the changing nature of the country; on the other, alarmed at the scope and pace of the change, especially when it threatens to overload the entitlement system or put them out of work.

This tension started in 2013, when four Republicans joined four Democrats as the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” to pursue comprehensive immigration reform. Two of them, Arizona’s John McCain and Jeff Flake, saw the population trend lines in their home state. The third, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, warned that Republicans faced “a demographic death spiral.” The fourth, Florida’s Marco Rubio, aspired to run for president and to heal the fraught relationship between Hispanics and his party. But it wasn’t meant to be: The Senate-passed bill was blocked in the House, where many Republicans represent deep-red, mostly white districts, and Rubio flamed out in the primaries in part because he couldn’t live down his role in the Gang of Eight.

And then Trump became the Republican nominee for president.

Several once-safe Republican states now lean Democratic in presidential-election years, when voter turnout, especially among minorities, is higher than in off-years.

In sweeping to the nomination, Trump took a sledgehammer to the party’s elite consensus on immigration. Now the fear among GOP strategists isn’t just that his no-holds-barred, ad hominem campaign will hurt Republicans with Hispanics in 2016 — but also that it’s antagonizing a generation of voters Republicans will need if they ever hope to reoccupy the White House. According to the Pew Research Center, 4 million Hispanics have become eligible voters since 2012. That pace will only accelerate. With the youngest population in the U.S., Hispanics will drive the number of eligible minority voters ever higher, eclipsing white eligible voters by 2052.

“For the past 20 years, looking at the rate of change over every four-year presidential cycle, we’ve been running like clockwork nationwide with a 2 percent increase in minority voters, a 1 percent increase in college-educated whites, and a 3 percent decrease in white non-college voters,” says Ruy Teixeira, an acclaimed demographer and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “That might not sound like much in the span of four years. But over 20 years — six presidential cycles — that’s twelve points more minority and twelve points less white.”

The implications are neither abstract nor academic. Several once-safe Republican states now lean Democratic in presidential-election years, when voter turnout, especially among minorities, is higher than in off-years. And barring a dramatic change in voter attitudes, others will soon follow. Two regions in particular, the mountain West and the Middle Atlantic states, are undergoing the speediest transformations.

In the mountain West, the traditionally competitive states of New Mexico (five electoral votes), Nevada (six), Colorado (nine), and Arizona (eleven) either are already beyond reach for Republicans or soon will be, thanks to booming Hispanic populations and diminishing numbers of non-college-educated whites. In the Middle Atlantic states, the same can be said for Virginia (thirteen electoral votes), North Carolina (fifteen), and Georgia (sixteen), all of which have diversifying economies and swelling college-educated urban outgrowth to complement fast-growing minority populations.

Is all hope lost for the GOP? Not yet. But if Republicans hope to defy the notion that demography is destiny — and prevent a host of red states from turning blue — Arizona is probably the best place to start.

The question isn’t whether Arizona will flip, but when. At least, that’s what political scientists and party strategists say. For years, they’ve looked to 2024 or 2028 as the election in which Republicans will finally succumb to the state’s demographic headlock. It will have been one hell of a run: From 1952 to 2012, the GOP carried Arizona in 15 of 16 general elections. The exception was 1996, when Bill Clinton edged Bob Dole by two points en route to a reelection landslide.

Something else happened in 1996: Natalie Arambula was born. The daughter of Mexican-American immigrants, she’s now taking general prerequisite courses at Phoenix College, a two-year school in the heart of Arizona’s biggest city. Between classes, she explains why she recently registered to vote for the first time. “Trump is a racist,” Arambula says. “I don’t think I’ll ever vote for a Republican because of him.” An afternoon spent at Phoenix College finds a bottomless well of similar sentiment. Many Hispanic students say they’ve also recently registered — assisted by the white-haired out-of-state activists patrolling the campus with clipboards — because of the threat one party poses to their community. This could make all the difference in November: Trump leads Clinton by one point in the RealClearPolitics polling average of Arizona, and her campaign announced a $2 million investment in the state three weeks before Election Day.

This is a nightmare for the GOP. The Hispanic vote share was climbing long before Trump descended his golden escalator to seek the presidency. Nationally, Hispanics were 8 percent of the electorate in 2004, 9 percent in 2008, and 10 percent in 2012. In Arizona, the trend is sharper: Hispanics went from 12 percent in 2004 to 18 percent in 2012, while whites dropped from 79 percent to 74 percent. In a state where Hispanics are now roughly one-third of the population — half of them under 18 — the last thing Republicans wanted was to mobilize them. After all, the Hispanic community’s political impact has been diluted by its anemic turnout; only 48 percent of eligible Hispanics voted in 2012, according to Pew, compared with 64 percent of eligible whites and 67 percent of eligible blacks.

This year could be different. The Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce estimates that nearly 200,000 Hispanics have been registered since 2010, thanks to the work of well-organized liberal groups. Voters such as Arambula — predisposed to vote Democratic by virtue of their age and ethnicity — represent a potential tipping point in the partisan struggle for control of Arizona. The question now is whether they’ll show up on November 8.

“There’s still a gap, not just between eligible voters and registered voters, but between those who are registered and those who vote,” says Mónica Villalobos, the Hispanic Chamber’s vice president. Her organization, along with the non-partisan firm WestGroup Research, conducted a recent poll that found that 40 percent of Arizona Hispanics felt their vote wouldn’t “impact” the election, and another 40 percent felt that neither candidate represented them. “That means 80 percent of Hispanic voters here are disengaged,” she says.

This is welcome news for the GOP. Until their relationship with the Hispanic community improves, Republican strategists acknowledge, depressed turnout is their ally. (There’s a reason conservative groups aren’t funding voter-registration drives in Hispanic neighborhoods; even the Libre Initiative, a Koch-brothers enterprise that hosts free tax-preparation seminars and English-as-a-second-language courses, doesn’t register voters in Arizona.) If Trump provokes any meaningful uptick in Hispanic turnout, the state could turn blue ahead of schedule.

“We did a report last year, before Trump came along, with straight-line projections,” says Joe Garcia, director of the Latino Public Policy Center at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy. “And it showed that even with low registration and low turnout among Latinos, around 2030, Arizona will change from a conservative red state into a progressive blue state. With Trump, there’s a galvanizing effect on the Latino community that could accelerate the change we predict is going to happen anyway.”

What makes Arizona tough for Democrats — even with fierce demographic tailwinds — is the state’s conservative bent going back to Barry Goldwater. Generations of GOP dominance are difficult to surmount. Even now, after a multi-year campaign to enlist Hispanic voters, registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats in Arizona by more than 160,000; that margin was roughly 96,000 in 2008. This can likely be attributed to many new Hispanic registrants’ identifying as “other” instead of with either party. But for now, it gives Republicans hope.

“For either party to win the Hispanic vote, they’re going to have to invest. And I have a lot of Hispanic kids telling me that Democrats are taking them for granted,” says Robert Graham, chairman of the Arizona GOP. “So yes, the state could go blue. But it could also go a brighter shade of red.”

Without a clear electoral incentive, Republicans may never take meaningful action on immigration; if they don’t, they may never win Hispanics.

It wouldn’t be without precedent. Texas became majority-minority in 2004, and whites today are just 43 percent of its population. Yet Democrats haven’t carried the state since 1976. This speaks not only to the conservative worldview of the state’s white electorate but also to the relative independence of its Hispanics. Romney won 27 percent of Hispanics nationally in 2012; there was no exit poll of Texas, but multiple private surveys showed him taking nearly 40 percent of Hispanics there. It’s a similar story in Florida, the nation’s biggest battleground. After it spent 60 years teetering between parties, Democrats hoped its bulging Hispanic population would tip the scales. But it hasn’t, thanks to the conservative Cuban vote. Romney won 39 percent of Florida Hispanics, exit polls showed.

That’s the good news for Republicans. The bad news: Arizona Hispanics have a more liberal voting record. Only 22 percent supported Romney in 2012. Four years earlier, an impressive 41 percent backed the Republican nominee — but that was McCain, their home-state senator, an avowed immigration reformer. Graham, who might challenge Reince Priebus for the Republican National Committee chairmanship, points to McCain and Flake as a model for attracting Hispanic votes. Yet in demonstration of the GOP’s internecine struggle, after praising the senators’ work in the Gang of Eight, he dodges repeated questions about whether citizenship or even legalization should be considered for undocumented immigrants.

Much of the GOP base rejects any such amnesty, as evidenced by Trump’s ascent. And even if Republicans defied their constituents, there would be no guarantee of the party’s being rewarded at the ballot box. Not only does Reagan’s example loom large, but polling shows that Hispanics — while culturally conservative and entrepreneurial — hold a fundamentally liberal view of the role of government, especially in the areas of health care and the environment.

Without a clear electoral incentive, Republicans may never take meaningful action on immigration; if they don’t, they may never win Hispanics. The status quo is unsustainable, GOP leaders say, because the endgame is unforgiving: Declining white populations almost always foreshadow Democratic gains at the ballot box. Arizona can look around the region for proof.

Colorado voted Republican in nine of ten elections from 1968 to 2004. But from 1984 to 2004, whites decreased by ten points as a share of the population. Unsurprisingly, Democrats broke through in 2008 and repeated their victory in 2012 (when just 23 percent of Hispanics backed Romney). The state is safely Democratic in 2016, and Republicans will struggle to reclaim it. Colorado is now 67 percent white; based on Census Bureau projections, it will be 60 percent white in 2030 and majority-minority by 2050.

Or take Nevada. It was a Republican lock from 1968 to 1988, carried by the GOP in each of those six elections. As its population diversified, it became a swing state, carried narrowly by Democrats in 1992 and 1996 and by Republicans in 2000 and 2004. But Obama’s wins in 2008 and 2012 were lopsided. The obvious explanation is demographic change. Nevada was 63 percent white in 2004; today it’s 52 percent. It will become majority-minority by 2020, and by 2040 it’s projected to be 36 percent white. Trump has been surprisingly competitive in Nevada due to its sizable population of working-class whites, but this is likely to be their last stand. Barring the unforeseen, Nevada will become a permanently blue state.

New Mexico provides a glimpse of the future. Republicans carried the state in six consecutive elections, from 1968 to 1988. But its non-white population grew steadily throughout. By 1992 it was essentially split 50–50 between minorities and whites. Democrats won five of the next six elections, the lone exception being 2004, when George W. Bush won a record-high 44 percent of Hispanics nationally. The last two elections haven’t been close. And with a white population that’s currently 37 percent and falling fast, New Mexico is no longer considered by either party to be competitive in presidential years.


To drive south through Virginia from its northernmost point is to traverse polarized empires. It is to leave behind the soaring structures and paralyzed expressways and claustrophobic commuter subdivisions, suddenly to discover a landscape of serrated mountains and abandoned roads and sprawling farms. Virginia as a whole was once like its southern region is now: white, rural, agricultural, religious, and blue-collar. It voted that way too: Republicans carried the commonwealth in 13 of 14 presidential elections from 1952 to 2004. (The lone exception was Lyndon B. Johnson’s 44-state romp in 1964.) Even in his tough campaigns, George W. Bush carried Virginia by eight and nine points in 2000 and 2004, respectively.

That seems a distant memory. Obama won the state by six points in 2008 and by four points in 2012, and Trump’s campaign has effectively ceded it to Clinton. Why? The Old Dominion has changed significantly since Bush’s second victory. For starters, whites were 71 percent of Virginia’s voting-age population in 2004; today that number is 65 percent, and it is projected to be 60 percent in 2030. More consequentially, the state has seen a pronounced population shift toward urban areas. As the New York Times noted, “in 1970, as the first Republican governor since Reconstruction was taking office, just one in eight Virginians lived in the suburban counties outside Washington. By 2008, about one in three did.” That trend has continued unabated thanks to the proliferation of government-related jobs and a vast corollary expansion of the suburban-D.C. housing market. As a result, Virginia as a whole now resembles (and votes like) its northern region, having grown more diverse, more urban, and better educated.

Pat Counts has watched this transformation from Salem, a town of 25,000 tucked in Virginia’s scenic southwest corner. Counts, 65, was born in Salem and never left; he raised a family, served as fire chief for 40 years, and is now retired. As he waits for Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, to address a cap-and-flannel-clad audience at the local community enter, Counts says his children have all moved to bigger cities — including a son who lives in Loudoun County, a wealthy Washington exurb. “He took a while to get used to it,” Counts says, laughing. “Down here, we’re more middle class and laid back, compared to the hustle and bustle up there. Plus, those people are much more liberal in their beliefs.” Counts supports Trump’s immigration proposals, and wishes his state could go back to the way it was. But he knows better. “Every election now, it looks good for Republicans, until all those votes start coming in from northern Virginia.”

These same trends — the diversification, urbanization, and education of Virginia’s electorate — are slower yet still noticeable in neighboring North Carolina. Like Virginia, the Tar Heel State was dominated by Republicans for several generations; the GOP carried nine of ten presidential elections from 1968 to 2004. But it’s now among the nation’s premier battlegrounds: After two double-digit Bush wins, Obama carried the state by one-third of a percentage point in 2008, and Romney took it back with a two-point victory in 2012. Though North Carolina remains more competitive than Virginia, it may not be for long. The state’s black, Asian, and Hispanic populations are all projected to increase steadily over the next 30 years, while whites, who were 75 percent of the state’s population in 1986, are 63 percent today and heading toward minority status by 2050. It’s not just the racial complexion of North Carolina that’s changing; the state has seen an influx of young, college-educated residents drawn to the banking industry in Charlotte and the research triangle in the Raleigh-Durham area. (Between 1980 and 2010, the share of North Carolinians living in cities of 75,000 or more “nearly doubled” from 14.5 percent to 28 percent, according to Rebecca Tippett of the UNC-Chapel Hill Carolina Population Center.) These changes have come at the expense of a vanishing manufacturing industry that once employed the state’s white working class.

Skipping across ruby-red South Carolina, Republicans also have cause for concern in Georgia. Once a bastion of the solid Democratic south, the Peach State swung into the GOP column in 1984 and stayed there for six of the next seven elections, the exception being Bill Clinton’s 14,000-vote victory over George H. W. Bush in 1992. Republicans have carried Georgia by an average of eight points in the five elections since; they control the governor’s mansion, both legislative chambers, both U.S. Senate seats, and ten of fourteen congressional districts. Yet Georgia’s white share of the population has dropped sixteen points since 1984. The state is currently 54 percent white and will become majority-minority by 2026. Like North Carolina, Georgia owes its minority growth to a mix of blacks, Asians, and Hispanics. And though it has fewer metropolitan areas than North Carolina, Georgia has seen massive outgrowth from Atlanta as college-educated, white-collar voters have moved in. As Josh Putnam, a lecturer in the University of Georgia’s political-science department and the founder of the elections website FrontloadingHQ, says, “If North Carolina is tipping toward Democrats now, then Georgia won’t be far behind.”

As Ebenezer Scrooge asked the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come, “Are these the shadows of things that will be, or are they the shadows of things that may be only?”

That question can be answered only by the Republican party. The demographic writing is on the wall; if the GOP continues to repel non-whites, it will cease to be competitive. “Trying to win a presidential election by getting a larger and larger share of a smaller and smaller proportion of the electorate is a losing strategy,” says Whit Ayres, a top pollster to many Republicans, including Rubio, and the author of a book on America’s demographic transformation. “It’s very clear that Republicans are going to have to do much better among non-white voters to have any hope of electing a president in the future.”

Mindful of this imperative, House speaker Paul Ryan, for example, has toured the nation’s poorest neighborhoods and met with community leaders to craft anti-poverty proposals, and has long been a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform. He pushed the House GOP to produce a far-reaching policy agenda in hopes of convincing skeptics — especially those in minority communities — that Republicans have a proactive, inclusive blueprint to improve their lives. But Ryan, for the time being, is noticeably out of step with his party, as evidenced by its choice of a candidate whose sincerest pitch to black voters is, “What the hell do you have to lose?”

Hence the roles of Trump and Ryan as enemy generals in the Republican civil war, plotting their irreconcilable paths for the GOP’s future. Ryan knows the country is changing and wants the party to evolve for long-term survival; Trump knows the party’s base rejects this change, particularly the looming threat of higher immigration levels under a Clinton presidency, and wants their votes for short-term victory.

#related#Trump is unlikely to succeed, of course. But even an improbable November 8 victory wouldn’t change the fact that his coalition — older, white, and not college-educated — is small and getting smaller. Instead of choosing a leader who could appeal to these voters as well as to the ones changing the mountain West and the Middle Atlantic states, Republicans nominated a man who implicitly denies the demographic changes that make his candidacy such an electoral challenge — and who indulges the fantasy of returning to an America that no longer exists.

Helen Best, a 69-year-old loyal Republican and lifelong North Carolina resident, says it’s no mystery why Democrats are ascendant. “The country’s morals have changed,” she says. “This is going to sound racial, but it’s all the free handouts — they’re teaching people you don’t have to work for what you get anymore. And people are voting for them.” Standing outside a Pence rally in Raleigh one brisk October evening, she shrugs with dismay. “People say it’s just a changing of the times. But why do we need to change at all?”

— Tim Alberta is National Review’s chief political correspondent. 


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