In his new book 2016 and Beyond, Republican pollster Whit Ayres offers a prescription for how his party can win the presidency next year. Unfortunately for the GOP, Ayres’ demographic analysis suggests the math may prove too daunting for the next Republican candidate to overcome.
The new book is subtitled How Republicans Can Elect a President in the New America. His demographic analysis of the electorate reveals what is new in the “new” America. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan beat incumbent Jimmy Carter for the presidency, whites comprised 88 percent of the electorate; in 2012, their share fell to 72 percent. “If America had the same demographics in recent elections that it had when Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, John McCain would have won the presidency in 2008 and Mitt Romney would have been elected in 2012,” Ayres points out.
In 2012, Romney won 59 percent of the white vote to 39 percent for Barack Obama. Romney still lost the election by five million votes. He prevailed among every significant sub-group of whites — men and women, young and old, Protestants and Catholics. Obama won because he trounced his opponent among minorities. He had near-unanimous support among African Americans, and he beat Romney by nearly three-to-one among Hispanics and Asians. Such overwhelming support among minorities enabled Obama to win reelection with the votes of fewer than four-in-ten whites.
The playing field is even tougher in 2016 for the prospective GOP nominee. If recent trends continue, the electorate in the next election will be 69 percent white, 31 percent non-white. Ayres says that if the Republican candidate carries the identical percentage of the white vote won by Romney in 2012 — 59 percent — then he or she will need to capture 30 percent of the non-white vote to win the election. Such an outcome is highly unlikely, given that Romney won only 17 percent of the non-white vote in 2012 and McCain only 19 percent four years earlier. George W. Bush, in his 2004 reelection, took only 26 percent of the non-white vote, four points below what the 2016 nominee will need.
Turn the equation around and start with the assumption that the 2016 Republican nominee will win the same 17 percent of the non-white vote that Romney did in 2012. In that scenario, the nominee will need to win 65 percent of the white vote to beat his or her Democratic opponent. Only Reagan in 1984, when he swept 49 states in his landslide reelection, achieved that level of white support (he won 66 percent of the white vote). “The challenge for Republicans is obvious.” Ayres writes. “Even George W. Bush’s comfortable reelection win in 2004, with 58 percent of the white vote and 26 percent of the non-white vote, would be a losing hand in 2016.”
For Democrats, Ayres says, “The winning coalition looks very different.” Obama captured 51 percent of the vote in 2012 by winning 39 percent of the white vote and 82 percent of the non-white vote. “If the Democratic nominee in 2016 wins the same 39 percent of the white vote as Obama,” Ayres concludes, “he or she could win the presidency by gaining 75 percent of the non-white vote.” The Democratic nominee is likely to be a she, Hillary Clinton, who figures to gain a larger percentage of the vote among white women than Obama, making the Republican math even more complicated this time around.
Ayres, who is now chief pollster for Florida Senator Marco Rubio, suggests that Republicans can win the White House in 2016 by improving their performance among minorities, especially Hispanics, and by upping their percentage of the white vote, especially in the states of the upper Midwest such as Minnesota and Wisconsin. Ayres told columnist Dan Balz that the GOP could attract more white votes if its candidates “relate to people who are struggling economically and relate to people who have been disadvantaged by a remarkably changing economy.”
That recommendation is, of course, obvious. But how can the Republican nominee “relate to people who are struggling economically” if he or she represents a party which consistently votes against raising the minimum wage and whose answer to every economic problem is to lower taxes on the wealthy?
What of social issues? Ayres argues that abortion will remain an issue for many years because Americans are divided over its morality. He sees no harm to the GOP if it remains the anti-abortion party. Same-sex marriage, however, is different. Ayres realizes the debate on gay marriage is over. But the problem for Republicans remains voters in the early primaries and caucuses who push the party to the right on marriage equality.
“Successful Republican candidates drive down the middle of the right-hand side of the road,” Ayres concludes. “If they veer too far to the right, they run into the ditch. If they veer too far to the left, they run into a Democrat posing as a moderate coming the other way. The safest and most successful route to Republican electoral success lies in the middle of the right-hand side of the road.”
Easier said than done! For Republicans staying “in the middle of the right-hand side of the road” becomes increasingly difficult during a primary process involving a dozen or more candidates vying for financial backing from right-wing donors like the Koch Brothers and for votes from ultraconservative in the early primary and caucus states. The dynamics of the nominating process are likely to push the candidates even further to the right, making it much more difficult for the eventual nominee to broaden support among minorities and Northern whites, voters Ayers has identified as necessary for a Republican victory in 2016.
The math just won’t add up!