The Reagan Coalition Is Dead — GOP Now Needs More Than Old, White Men to Grow

The Reagan Coalition Is Dead — GOP Now Needs More Than Old, White Men to Grow

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles examining what went wrong for the Republican Party in the 2012 presidential election and where the GOP goes from here. Please visit our special section GOP: What Next? to follow the series of stories and find related content.

Prior to the 2012 election, if you told Republicans their nominee would win white voters, elderly voters and independents, in some cases by margins that rival Ronald Reagan’s, they would have assumed a blowout was coming. Nov. 6, 2012 showed how wrong that diagnosis would have been.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan won voters over 60 55-41. Romney won them 56-44. Reagan won men 55-38. Romney won men 52-46. Reagan won independents 56-31. Romney won them 50-45. Reagan won white voters by 56-36. Romney matched his margin, but outpaced his rate of support at 59-39.

This last margin alone would have had Republicans justifiably picking out the drapes for the Oval Office in 1980. Now all the encouraging margins above cannot even muster a close race in the electoral college. This fact has Republicans alarmed and asking themselves, justifiably, just what happened.

The answer is that America just doesn’t look the same. In 1980, white voters were 88 percent of the electorate. Now they’re 72 percent of the electorate. Men were 51 percent of the electorate in 1980. Now they’re 47 percent of the electorate. Elderly voters made up 18 percent of the electorate in 1980. Now they’re 16 percent. These uniformly shrinking numbers suggest something very ominous for Republicans who want to win in the future – namely, that their electoral math is obsolete and the coalition that handed them their most lopsided victories in recent history is no longer enough to even win a majority. As USC Professor Patrick James put it, “If you look at the demographics and voting proportions, the Reagan coalition would not win a majority today.”

Credit: Getty Images

And who has replaced them? To put it in the memorable phrasing of New York Magazine columnist John Heilemann, voters the Romney campaign “didn’t know existed,” namely Hispanics (2 percent of the electorate in 1980, now 10 percent), Asians (statistically insignificant in 1980, now 3 percent) and women (49 percent in 1980, now 53 percent). And while the Romney campaign didn’t know those voters exist, now everyone does know, and there is no reason to suspect they are going away, which raises the question – can the GOP remain competitive, given the new demographic realities, and if they can, which of these groups might they focus on as solid election prospects?

As with any big question, there are multiple answers to this, though the most popular approach among many conservatives seems to be an almost monomaniacal focus on Hispanic outreach. And indeed, given demographic trends, Republicans will need to make sufficient inroads with Hispanics if they want to succeed. However, there are other groups that are (in some ways) easier pickings, who mysteriously have gone either unmentioned or less mentioned as potential prospects for a broader, multi-ethnic Republican party.

Moreover, the focus on racial questions arguably obscures another issue – namely, the volatility of the Democratic economic coalition, which in some cases relies on groups with mutually exclusive interests to vote for the same party. A coalition like this is inherently unstable, and there is potential for the Republican party to pick up votes, financial support and perhaps most importantly, governing issues by capitalizing on those divisions. As such, in looking at the groups that are ripe for inclusion in the GOP, two of the three most ripe are racial groups and one is an industry with ideological commitments that are quite arguably more at home with Republican impulses than with Democratic ones.

Who are those three groups? Read on.

1. Indian Americans

If one tried to derive the racial mix of the current Republican party looking at the Republican leaders currently raising their voices most audibly in the argument over the direction of the party, one could easily conclude that the GOP is held together by a racial mix of whites, hispanics (mostly Cubans) and Indian-Americans. Certainly, with promising future governors like Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, that would seem to be a foregone conclusion. Combine that with Indian Americans’ relative affluence and instinct to assimilate (and excel), and you have a picture of a minority group that arguably has no reason at all to vote Democrat. Yet in spite of these many factors, Indian Americans actually ended up being some of President Obama’s strongest supporters this election cycle. In fact, of the candidates endorsed by USINPAC, a PAC devoted to advancing the interests of Indian-Americans, only one is a Republican.

How did this happen? The answer is complicated, but a Reason article from October 31 by columnist Shikha Dalmia might shed some light on it. Dalmia points specifically at two factors that explain the Indian-American tendency to support Democrats, those being Indian Americans’ cultural memory of repression under the British Empire (making them sensitive to discrimination), and their predisposition toward religious pluralism due to their predominately Hindu faith. To quote Dalmia:

Having grown up in a country where the memory of British colonialism and its apartheid ways is still very much alive, they are exceedingly — even overly — sensitive to discrimination. They see America as a fair and just country — much more so than England and far more than their own country with its myriad, soul-sapping hierarchies. (This is why, when America liberalized its immigration policies in 1965 and opened the door to Indians, they overwhelmingly started choosing it over England or Australia or any other destination, although that is changing now). But they also feel that just as it takes constant effort to keep tyranny at bay, it also takes constant effort to keep in check the natural urge of the dominant group to put in place a system of privileges that benefit its own. Without an explicit — even exaggerated — commitment to fairness and equality, it is difficult to vanquish this tendency and, as far as they are concerned, the only party that has shown any desire to make this commitment is the Democratic Party — if only in name. (I suspect this is also the reason why other minorities lean Democratic.)[…v]

Hinduism with its exotic practices, belief in reincarnation and quasi-polytheism has very little in common with Christianity. Even Islam accepts monotheism, the Bible and Christ. Hinduism, by contrast, has a completely different holy book, its own pantheon of Gods and its own (equally bizarre) theory of creation. Hindus don’t regard Christianity as wrong or an enemy. They just see it as one among many legitimate options and Jesus as one among many incarnations of God. There isn’t a clash of civilizations between Hinduism and Christianity — there is a clash of spiritual postures.

Hence, when the Republican Party loudly touts its allegiance to “Christian values” and insists that Christianity is inextricably interwoven into the DNA of this country, it doesn’t anger Indians, it nonplusses them. It effectively signals to them that they don’t fully belong in America or their party. And the sight of Haley and Jindal on the Republican convention stage, both of whom rejected their faith and embraced Christianity, doesn’t reassure Indians — it creeps them out! (Incidentally, there is no such thing as apostasy in Hinduism.)

The fact that these two instincts lean a demographic group that under any other circumstances would be solidly Republican toward the Democrats should be worrisome to conservatives. And while these reasons for uneasiness with the GOP would seem to be founded more on stereotypes of conservatism than on reality, the cases of Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley do show why it has some resonance. From a profile of the two in Salon from 2010:

Though candidates try to downplay the still strong presence of identity politics, it’s clear that that there are still some racial tensions to overcome. After all, Haley this spring was derided as a “raghead” by a fellow South Carolina Republican, while Goyle was branded an “evil” “turban topper” by his Republican foe, Mike Pompeo.

Indeed, the very fact that Jindal is known as “Bobby” and not “Piyush,” his original Indian first name, and that Haley is known as “Nikki” and not “Nimrata” says a lot about the difficulties of the two politicians, who Salon describes as having to pass  a “How ‘American’ do you need to be” test.

Now, to be sure, Indian American voters are a statistically smaller group than some of the others under consideration by a wide margin. However, as the Salon article notes, despite their  small numbers, Indian Americans offer a sizable financial advantage to the candidate who wins their support, and given the quality of the current crop of Indian American Republicans, there is ample reason to believe they would add some much needed evidence of diversity to the party.

And speaking of diversity, another group that Indian Americans are generally lumped in with should probably be considered up for grabs as well:

Asian Americans

As with Indian Americans, Asian voters are a case study in voting in what would seem to be an irrational way, especially considering that they not only gain little from Democratic policies, but actually seem to suffer from the effects of at least one – namely, affirmative action. Moreover, conservative publications and activists have noted – and crusaded against – this particular instance of injustice:

Asian Americans routinely outperform all other groups, including Caucasians, in academic achievement, a pattern that has been observed since at least the mid-1980s. By eighth grade, “the percentage of Asian American students scoring in the upper echelons on math exams was 17 points higher than the percentage of white students,” reports the Washington Post. When it’s time to apply for college, the gap continues: In 2010, the last year for which data were available, the average SAT score for Asian Americans was 1636, versus 1580 for Caucasian students, 1369 for Mexicans and Mexican Americans, and 1277 for African Americans.

But as Asian Americans have risen through the academic ranks, some claim that they’ve become the “new Jews”—a group considered to be “overrepresented” in elite academia.

Moreover, Asian Americans are the most affluent minority in America, and strenuously support traditional family structures. To quote a Pew Research Center report:

 Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success.

And if that block quote doesn’t ring of a potential pickup, the charts from the report in question offer should. Consider the following:

Photo Credit: Pew Research Center
Photo Credit: Pew Research Center

Clearly, based on these statistical facts about Asian American attitudes, this group should be a strategic match made in heaven for the GOP.

Yet in the 2012 election, they still went overwhelmingly for Barack Obama. Why? An article in the Los Angeles Times by experts Taeku Lee and Karthick Ramakrishnan offers some clues:

 First, it is no accident that the move toward the Democratic Party started during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Although detailed polling data on Asian Americans in the 1990s are lacking, this is a period when the Democratic Party developed a new pro-business image, economic growth was strong, Asian Americans naturalized in unprecedented numbers and Clinton made public efforts to woo them, including nominating the first Asian American to the Cabinet. Still, even by 2000, Asian Americans were roughly evenly split in their choice between Al Gore and George W. Bush.[…]

This mix of “push” and “pull” factors continued during the first Obama administration. On the “push” side of the ledger, the Republican Party has not been helped by its close liaison with the tea party movement, which received low favorability ratings in our 2012 survey, nor by presidential candidates and party activists emphasizing Christian values. Thus a Pew report on Asian American religion showed the highest Democratic Party support among Hindus and the religiously unaffiliated who, together, account for more than 35% of the Asian American population.

On the “pull” side is the significant rise in the number of Asian Americans Obama has appointed, from Cabinet positions to the World Bank, and policy achievements that matter to Asian Americans like healthcare (the Affordable Care Act), education (college loans and the Race to the Top initiative) and foreign policy (ending the Iraq war). On all these matters, and even on job creation, our 2012 survey showed Asian Americans giving a sizable edge to Obama over Romney. It is no surprise, then, that Obama did even better among Asian Americans in 2012 than in 2008.

In other words, Asian Americans vote for Democrats because Democrats have made a concerted effort to woo them, and because they may still look at Democrats as the party of Clintonian moderation, rather than the party of hard line Leftism. Also, like their religiously tolerant Indian American brethren, they appear to be nonplussed at best by the GOP’s focus on explicitly religious values. Fairly or not, the inability or refusal of politicians like Marco Rubio to answer questions about noncontroversial, basic science almost certainly fails to help Republicans with groups that are so highly educated and aggressively secular, and this may signal trouble for some segments of the GOP. So, too, does the Asian American community’s close relation to the illegal immigration problem, given that so much of their demographic growth is due to immigration, both legal and otherwise.

Fortunately, with the GOP taking steps towards immigration reform (while stopping well short of the Democratic approach), this latter problem at least may be mitigated. And given that immigration reform is the most substantive policy roadblock to the GOP making inroads with Asian Americans, such mitigation would allow for easier tweaks to messaging strategy and to the types of candidates recruited to net Asian American votes. The Romney campaign, to its credit, tried to do this already, and if Republicans follow – and exceed – their example, Asian Americans could do a lot to staunch the GOP’s bleeding among minorities.

So those are two racial groups that could provide the GOP the beginnings of a path toward a workable coalition. Which Democratic-leaning industry might join them? Read on.

The Tech Industry

If there’s anything more frequently cited than demographics as the reason for the GOP’s failure this election cycle, it’s their clear disadvantage relative to the Obama campaign in the realm of building new technology. After all, the collapse of the Romney campaign’s GOTV software ORCA has become a running joke with political commentators, while the Obama campaign’s fleet of tech geniuses were deservedly memorialized with a glowing Atlantic Monthly article titled “When the Nerds Go Marching In.” Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook is a major Democratic donor, and the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, is reportedly being considered for Treasury Secretary. The takeaway is clear: The tech industry leans Democratic.

Like with Asian and Indian American voters, however, this is a disparity that quite arguably should go the other way. Why? Because one of the Democrats’ main political commitment is to Hollywood and the entertainment industry generally, and no group has been historically more terrified of innovation that could blunt their business model than the entertainment industry. Moreover, the connection between Hollywood and Democrats is so well-established as to be almost incestuous, with Hollywood starlets headlining the Democratic convention while former Democratic Senator Chris Dodd is now the head of the Motion Picture Association of America.

And not only does Hollywood support the Democrats, but with its obsessive focus on combating online piracy, and loathing of any and all exceptions to copyright, it is the biggest enemy of the interests of those within the tech industry, which ruthlessly favors innovation will oppose to its last breath any attempt to regulate the place where that innovation is often born – namely, the internet.

So why isn’t the tech industry behind the Republicans? Well, some of their leaders are, but a raft of cultural issues and, in some cases, unthinking allegiance to big business on the part of Republicans drove Silicon Valley into the hands of Democrats in the 2006 election cycle. Those in the tech industry that remain Republican tend to skew libertarian, meanwhile, and completely reject the party’s dogma on social issues. As the New York Times’ Nate Silver put it:

Perhaps a different type of Republican candidate, one whose views on social policy were more in line with the tolerant and multicultural values of the Bay Area, and the youthful cultures of the leading companies here, could gather more support among information technology professionals.

Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning Republican, raised about $42,000 from Google employees, considerably more than Mr. Romney did.

Worse for future prospects than vague cultural issues, however, is the fact that Republicans sponsored quite arguably the iconic symbol of everything the tech industry despises at the legislative level – namely, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). In some cases, the GOP arguably is in the right in its opposition to tech industry-pushed issues (for instance, on the complicated subject of net neutrality, which implicates economic freedom of businesses just as much as the personal freedom of internet users), but the party has yet to engage the tech community on these issues in any serious way, and the tech industry has responded in kind.

However, there are encouraging signs for a tech industry-friendly GOP. On the tech side, Facebook employees gave slightly more money to Republicans than Democrats this election cycle, while on the GOP side, officeholders and staff appear to be looking for support in internet deregulation efforts. This can especially be seen in the case of Rep. Darrell Issa’s willingness to debate the merits of a potential bill on Reddit, and in the paper authored by former Scott Brown staffer Derek Khanna arguing for substantial copyright reform. This latter paper was initially published with the imprint of the Republican Study Committee – the most conservative group in Congress – though they later pulled it, citing insufficient vetting. However, that the subject was broached at all signals a positive long-term trend. Finally, given the fact that tech savvy voters tend to skew young, this is a trend that the GOP quite arguably will want to accelerate as an inroad with young voters generally.

Bottom line: There is plenty of low-hanging fruit for the GOP to grab in successive election cycles, both at the racial and the economic level. As to whether they can do it, that is a question that will be decided in 2014 and beyond.

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