Friday, December 11, 2015

Has the GOP Shrunk to its Tribalist Core?

The Republican party is too insular--so say party leaders themselves. Or, as GOP leader and head of the American Conservative Union put it, "Our party needs to realize that it's too old and too white and too male and it needs to figure out how to catch up with the demographics of the country before it's too late."

In the 2012 presidential election, Romney had bested Obama handily in the white demographic, with 59 percent of European-Americans voting for the Republican nominee. Nearly nine in ten of Romney voters in 2012 were white. No GOP had had attracted more white voters since Reagan routed Mondale in a 49-state sweep back in 1984.

Nonetheless, Obama still won re-election by a comfortable 4 percentage points.

The numbers tell the story: Obama was able to overcome his historic 18 point deficit among white voters because he enjoyed a 58 percent lead among minority voters. In fact, Obama garnered overwhelming support from every significant minority group (including fully 93 percent African-Americans, 71 percent of Hispanic-Americans, and 73 percent of Asian-Americans).

The reality for the GOP—which is well-understood by party establishment types—is that the party is increasingly dependent on the white vote. Minority Republican voters make a disappearingly small share of the Republican base. The problem: the share of all-important white voters in the United States is fast shrinking (from a high of 89 percent in 1976 to 72 percent in 2012).

This means, as noted by GOP strategist Karl Rove,  that the party will need to win increasingly lopsided election sweeps of white voters (along the order of Reagan’s 1984 victory over Mondale) to remain competitive in presidential races, and that "It's unreasonable to expect Republicans to routinely pull numbers that last occurred in a 49-state sweep.”

In fact, according to recent estimates, the GOP would need to win at least 64 percent of the white vote, and 30 percent of the non-white vote in order to win the presidency in 2016. (The last time the GOP broke the 60 percent ceiling on the white vote was in the 1980s, and the proportion of non-white voters supporting the GOP comes nowhere near to 30 percent.)

GOP leaders are well aware of the coming demographic crisis and proposed strategies for reversing its losses in its official “autopsy” report of the 2012 election loss.  The aim was to figure out how to expand the GOP's appeal, particularly to minority communities. Said the report in part,

"...among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, must be to embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform," the report read. "If we do not, our Party's appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only."

What are those “core constituencies”? In a word (or five): white, Southern, male, rural, older.

A former GOP Congressman characterized the losses as follows: “Politics has been defined by culture over the last few cycles, and we’ve become a rural party and a Southern party. We’ve been losing inner suburbs and the like.”

To escape this bind,  GOP strategists reckoned that Republicans would need to pass some form of immigration reform to appeal to the Hispanic community, which is disproportionately harmed by the US's byzantine immigration system. And at the very minimum, Republican politicians needed to stop race-baiting. The logic followed that if the GOP could shake their image as hostile to minorities, then social conservatives within the Hispanic and black communities might well come over to the GOP.
Fast Forward Three Years

The 2016 presidential election is still 11 months out, but it is already clear that the GOP, far from moving toward a larger tent, has pitched—so to speak—the smallest pup tent imaginable.  Why? Because the tribalist core of the GOP hates “inclusivity” and “outreach,” particularly to minority communities. And the tribalist core is increasingly in the drivers seat. In short, the Republican Party has nowhere else to go.

For months, real estate mogul and reality television star, Donald J. Trump, has enjoyed a commanding lead in the polls, thanks largely to the support of these core groups. The chart below, created through Huffpost Pollster, illustrates shifts in popular support for all GOP contenders from June to December:

The most notable feature of the Trump candidacy (apart from the fact that the candidate has never held public office) is his unapologetic nativism and America-Firsterism. Trump launched his bid by painting a picture of an insecure U.S.-Mexican border openly flouted by a tide of illegal aliens who are “rapists,” “murderers,” “bringing drugs and crime.”  The solution announced Trump, is constructing a “big beautiful wall” that Mexico would pay for. Trump later expanded on his plan with a “deportation force” that could go door to door to round up and expel undocumented individuals.

Trump does not so much ignore minority communities in his campaign speeches, interviews and debate appearances as much as he openly antagonizes them--in order to pander to the GOP’s “core constituencies.” Rather than a dog whistle, Trump favors a blowhorn.

Until the ISIS attacks in in Paris, Trump started nearly every campaign appearance with some statement about America needing to “win” again (against China, Iran, Japan…) and how he would build an awesome wall to keep Mexican undesirables out.

After the Paris attacks, Trump pivoted neatly from Mexicans to Muslims, proclaiming (among other things) that the US not take in any Syrian refugees, for fear that some might be terrorists. When asked, he said he favored a database for keeping track of Muslims in America (a suggestion he has since walked back to some extent). And of course, Trump would “hit ISIS” and “hit them hard,” even "taking out their families." In the wake of the workplace shootings by two Muslims in San Bernardino, Trump advocated banning Muslims from entering the United States as either tourists or immigrants until the government "can figure out what's going on."

Trump’s raw, unfiltered tribalism resonate powerfully with much of the GOP base. This much is clear from popular reactions to Trump’s campaign events, focus groups, and opinion polls. Other Republican candidates are following Trump’s xenophobic lead. Why? Because that is where the GOP’s “core constituencies” are taking them.

According to a Public Policy Poll conducted in August, as many as 63 percent of Republican voters want to amend the Constitution to eliminate birthright citizenship. A Bloomberg Politics poll revealed that 65 percent of likely GOP primary voters favor banning Muslims from traveling to the US, and a Rasmussen Report revealed that 70 percent of likely Republican voters support building a wall to keep Mexicans out of the United States. Finally, a CNN/ORC poll shows that 63 percent of Republicans favor mass deportation of undocumented individuals (against 29 percent of Democrats).

Trump's positions, far from extreme, are right in line with those of the GOP base.

Seeing Trump’s success with the GOP tribalist core, nearly every GOP candidate has made some effort to appeal to the base. One-time fellow frontrunner, Ben Carson, declared he would seal the US-Mexican border within a year of assuming office, and within six months registering and eventually deporting undocumented individuals;  Marco Rubio favors shutting down mosques and any place where Muslims could gather to be inspired by extremism. Even supposedly moderate GOP presidential contender John Kasich proposed establishing a federal agency to promote “Judeo-Christian” values. Jeb Bush, too, attempted to revive his status as the party’s presumptive nominee—suggesting that the U.S. only let in Syrian refugees who can prove they are Christians

What Next for the GOP?

The GOP establishment is frankly "in chaos" about where this would leave the party, or even the country. According to the Washington Post, one Republican strategist said:

 “We’re potentially careening down this road of nominating somebody who frankly isn’t fit to be president in terms of the basic ability and temperament to do the job. It’s not just that it could be somebody Hillary could destroy electorally, but what if Hillary hits a banana peel and this person becomes president?”

When Frank Luntz conducted a focus group of Trump supporters back in August, his supporters made it clear that there was nothing anyone could say to shake their confidence in Trump, particularly when coming from members of the Republican establishment. Luntz was most stunned by evidence that Trump's supporters seemed unshakable in their enthusiasm for the frontrunner, even negative ads highlighting Trump's lies or distortions. Luntz said later, "This is real. I'm having trouble processing it. Like, my legs are shaking,"

The chickens have finally come home to roost for the GOP—decades after Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the infamous Willie Horton ad that sank Michael Dukakis in 1988. The fatal decision by the GOP to use race-baiting pick up southern votes a generation ago left the party with a shrinking electoral base that may now be too small to win presidential races. For its part, the base resists the very makeover that will save the party itself.