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The Emerging Republican Minority

The Center for American Politics’ Ruy Teixeira, one of the top political demographers in the country, has a new paper out in which he examines the two major party coalitions, with a focus on the current and future prospects of the Republican Party. For the GOP, says Teixeira, things look grim, in large part because the country is becoming less white and more educated. He provides specific data showing how college educated voters are growing, and non-college educated shrinking, as shares of the electorate; likewise for the growing non-white v. shrinking white populations.

“The Democratic Party will become even more dominated by the emerging constituencies that gave Barack Obama his historic 2008 victory, while the Republican Party will be forced to move toward the center to compete for these constituencies. As a result, modern conservatism is likely to lose its dominant place in the GOP,” he writes, adding that “the Republican Party as currently constituted is in need of serious and substantial changes in approach.”(Emphasis mine; will return to this point momentarily)

OK, not much new or surprising here in terms of the trends; those who follow these political-demographic patterns know the basic contours of the projected population trends moving forward. What’s interesting are the recommendations Teixeira offers–to Republicans, as opposed to Democrats, the target audience for much of previous writings–for how to deal with the challenges of the population changes ahead.

Specifically, he recommends that the GOP do some or all of the following (taken verbatim from the report):

*Move to the center on social issues. The culture wars may have worked for a while, but shifting demographics make them a loser for the party today and going forward. A more moderate approach would help with Millennials, where the party must close a yawning gap, and with white college graduates, who still lean Republican but just barely. The party also needs to make a breakthrough with Hispanics, and that won’t happen unless it shifts its image toward social tolerance, especially on immigration.

*Pay attention to whites with some college education and to young white working-class voters in general. The GOP’s hold on the white working class is not secure, and if that slips, the party doesn’t have much to build on to form a successful new coalition. That probably also means offering these voters something more than culture war nostrums and antitax jeremiads.

*Another demographic target should be white college graduates, especially those with a four-year degree only. The party has to stop the bleeding in America’s large metropolitan areas, especially in dynamic, growing suburbs. Keeping and extending GOP support among this demographic is key to taking back the suburbs. White college graduates increasingly see the party as too extreme and out of touch.

*In the long run the GOP has to have serious solutions of its own that go beyond cutting taxes. These solutions should use government to address problems but in ways that reflect conservative values and principles. Antigovernment populism is something the party is clearly comfortable with— witness its evolving line of attack on the Obama administration. But it’s likely not enough to just denounce the other side and what they have done or propose to do in populist terms.

In short, the “party of no” has a limited shelf life. That strategy might help the party make significant gains in 2010, but it will not be enough to restore it to a majority status.

What’s interesting to me about most of Teixeira’s suggested changes is that the GOP is either not doing them, or doing something close to the opposite. If anything, the opposite is happening. Indeed, the single biggest storyline of the past year for conservatives and the Republican Party is the rise of the tea party protest movement.

On immigration, if anything the GOP has taken a turn toward anti-amnesty, fence-building xenophobia. The Republicans may have eased off the gas pedal somewhat on tax-cutting, but the conversational shift to deficit reduction and fears of growing government size still carries strong and familiar anti-government overtones. There seems to be less Republican focus on hot-button issues like evolution/creationism or global warming–which presumably turn off many college-educated whites by dint of their anti-empirical and anti-intellectual content–but that is a matter of salience and decibel level rather than a transformation in the party’s issue positions or platforms.

In the near term, as Teixeira correctly points out, the GOP needs little more than an anti-Democrat pushback message: on TARP, size of government, health care spending, whatever; they don’t need an affirmative case. (The Democrats benefitted despite not really pushing all that much in the way of new ideas during the 2006 and 2008 cycles, because “not Bush” was a sufficient battle cry.) But in the longer term, the Republicans need new ideas that are rooted in some recognition of the changing demographics of the country, something that conservatives including Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, David Frum, and Michael Gerson have been advocating for some time now.

The nature of the GOP’s demographic-electoral problem is three-fold. First, the challenge of trying to evolve and adapt is itself limited by demographics because the GOP’s older and whiter residual white minority coalition is simply less amenable to the sort of changes it would take to modernize the party. Second, so many of the figures within the party who might be able to lead a center-right revival have been beaten in recent cycles, with the old Ford/Dole/Rockefeller wing decimated by the 2006 and 2008 cycles. (Relatedly, it doesn’t help when people like Frum are cast out from their intellectual circles.) Finally, it is simply not in the nature of conservatism to foment change or be out in front of demographic and social changes: Conservatism works best as a reaction to–not necessarily reactionary, but a reaction nonetheless–to oncoming, rapid changes.