Today’s Republican Party is at an all-time low and the party knows it. In 2012, its presidential candidate managed the party’s most spectacular feat in recent history: losing to an incumbent whose approval rating was at the lowest of any successful candidate since Gallup began polling in 1945 (a candidate who had presided over the highest unemployment rate of any reelected president since FDR, whose signature legislative achievement remained tremendously unpopular among independent voters on the eve of his reelection, and whose sole across-the-board strong suit - foreign policy - had been shaken less than two months before election day by utter catastrophe in Benghazi).
With the economy front-and-center in the national conversation, Romney, a private equity baron, somehow managed to lose the endorsement of the fiercely free-market Economist, whose editorial board begrudgingly selected Obama in one of the most tepid presidential endorsements ever granted by a major publication. And that after Romney withstood major challenges from a primary field whose candidates oscillated between quoting the Pokemon movie in major speeches and forgetting which pieces of the U.S. government they planned to abolish, and whose thorough incompetence can be neatly summed up with one word: Oops.
Former George W. Bush chief speechwriter Michael Gerson and Republican stalwart Peter Wehner sum the problem up nicely in their piece for Commentary: “The 2012 election was not only a dismal showing for the Republicans but the continuation of a dismal, 20-year trend. Out of the last six presidential elections, four have gone to the Democratic nominee, at an average yield of 327 electoral votes to 210 for the Republican. During the preceding two decades, from 1968 to 1988, Republicans won five out of six elections, averaging 417 electoral votes to the Democrats’ 113. In three of those contests, the Democrats failed to muster even 50 electoral votes.”
Romney performed particularly poorly among millenials (ages 18-29), the demographic future of the country — a disaster that may have singlehandedly cost him the race. This result is relatively unsurprising given what we know about the policy preferences and attitudes of millenials, who backed Obama by a significant margin (66%) over Romney. Fifty-seven percent (57%) of millenials favor a larger government with more services, 82% favor “increased federal funding for wind, solar and hydrogen technologies,” and just 23% of Millenials — the lowest percentage of any generation in history — married between the ages of 18 and 30. Young people, the demographic future of America, are ethnically diverse, less likely to identify strongly with religious institutions, and more inclined to view immigrants favorably than are older (and more Republican) Americans.
There has been a lot of speculation about what has gone wrong with the GOP, and what the party can do about it. Rumblings of change are on the horizon. And a big part of that change is going to be, by necessity, a revolution in the way the Republican Party engages with our generation.
Do the Republicans stand a chance of winning over a generation they have already begun to lose? And if so, what should, and what will, the new GOP look like? For what it's worth, here’s one millenial’s view.
Support marriage equality now
Gay marriage will become an electoral non-issue by 2030. Among millenials, the reluctance of key Republicans to embrace marriage equality seems increasingly archaic at best and hateful at worst. The longer the GOP — once the party of personal freedom — waits to endorse marriage equality nationwide, the darker the stain will be on its political record and the more voters who will remember which party, when push came to shove, stood on the wrong side of history. A Republican friend of mine recently met with a squadron of Republican bigwigs touring Silicon Valley and searching for bright young conservatives with ideas about how to best revitalize the party. Her first answer for them: support marriage equality.
Some of the GOP’s number are already abandoning the USS Falwell. The rest of them would do well to start heading for the lifeboats.
Appeal to minorities and immigrants
Today’s GOP is unsustainably white and male, and millenials are unprecedentedly diverse. But the available evidence indicates that the GOP’s lack of support among some minority communities may be due less to strong empirical policy disagreements than to a (likely justified) feeling that the party is full of old white racists who don’t like them much. If the GOP can successfully communicate its core policy tenets to immigrant and minority communities while simultaneously expunging its latent xenophobia, the party may look decidedly less monochromatic by 2030.
The GOP’s performance has been particularly disastrous among Asian-Americans. As conservative sociologist Charles Murray notes, Asian-Americans as a national demographic seem to bear the hallmarks of a natural Republican constituency. Asian-Americans have the highest median family income of any group measured by the Current Population Survey, tend to cluster in conservative-skewed professions, and boast higher marriage and lower divorce rates than whites — all indicators that tend to correlate positively with conservative political preferences. Despite all that, Asians voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, a fact Murray attributes to the party’s off-putting, Bible-thumping, alienating social conservatism. (Lloyd Green, writing for the Daily Beast, connects the dots slightly differently, noting that young Asian-Americans looking for work tend to cluster in STEM fields — fields that, for reasons described later in this piece, lean heavily Democratic — and view the GOP as “hostile to science and modernity”). Virulent Republican opposition to immigration is also a turnoff for Asian-American voters, many of whom moved (or whose parents moved) to America with nothing, seeking an American Dream they do not wish to deny to the next wave of up-and-coming immigrants.
While Asian-Americans are by no means a monolithic group, the annual Asian-American Values Survey demonstrates that the chief concerns of Asian-Americans mirror those of the electorate as a whole, with the economy and unemployment taking the top spot. That is both dispiriting and encouraging for the GOP; it suggests that Republicans are seriously underperforming among Asian-American voters, but also that the Party’s current difficulties may be solvable.
Hispanic (and particularly millenial Hispanic) immigration provides another textbook case of GOP self-destruction. Polls show that self-described Hispanic political preferences are little different from those of the general electorate, with 32% identifying as conservative, 31% as moderate, and 30% as liberal. Hispanics are more likely than the general public to believe that hard work brings positive results; 75% said “most people can get ahead if they are willing to work hard,” a consistent Republican mantra, while only 58% of the general public agreed. And a full 87% believe the “opportunity to get ahead” is greater in the U.S. than in the land of their ancestors. As David Brooks dryly noted for the Times, “immigration opponents are effectively trying to restrict the flow of conservatives into this country.”
Nonetheless, Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2012 and have voted solidly Democratic for the past 30 years. That shouldn’t be a surprise, given that Republicans have consistently opposed the Dream Act (a boon for young Hispanics who serve in the military or attend college in the U.S.), that one of the party's representatives in the House recently called the Mexican workers on his farm “wetbacks,” and that one of its presidential primary candidates famously suggested constructing an electrified Mexican border fence complete with alligator brigade.
Republican sentiment on the issue is shifting rapidly, however. Conservative anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist has blasted opponents of immigration reform in National Review; George Will has advised Americans not to allow a pessimistic zeitgest to dissuade us from welcoming immigrants; the Heritage Foundation’s anti-immigrant stance has been roundly disparaged by fellow conservatives, think-tank wonks and politicians alike; and Marco Rubio is the new public face of immigration reform. Given continued union opposition to immigrant labor competition, immigration reform should present Republicans a particularly golden opportunity to present an agenda of inclusion while preserving free-market economic principles.
Most difficult to fix, however, will be the GOP’s thoroughly broken relationship with the African-American community. Conservatives’ clumsy attempts to mend that rift - from the normally brilliant Kevin Williamson’s insistence over at National Review that everything from 1964 to the present hasn’t actually happened to the disaster that was the Conservative Political Action Conference this year - don’t bode well for a return to the days of Lincoln and Stevens. It will be a long road ahead for Rand Paul & Co., and this writer isn’t hopeful.
But if the party that ended slavery and pushed for 40 acres and a mule can become the party of Strom Thurmond, then perhaps the party of Strom Thurmond can turn things around too. Only time will tell.
Part II of this article, covering economic and fiscal policy, will appear soon.