(Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza reports today that Republicans are increasingly worried that a Donald Trump nomination could seriously damage the GOP and perhaps even remake it entirely:

Some prominent Republicans fear that a Trump nomination would fundamentally alter the identity of the Republican Party, even if he goes on to lose the general election, which seems likely. The Party would become more downscale, a potential asset if it meant drawing in disaffected Democrats, but also more alienating to non-whites, who represent the largest source of potential growth in the electorate. It would be defined by ethno-nationalism at home and an anti-interventionist retreat from America’s obligations abroad….

Those most opposed to Trump are Republicans with higher incomes and more education. A Republican Party under Trump might see a rise in its share of the white working-class vote, but it would also see an exodus of white-collar professionals.

The crucial point that Lizza makes here is that, while Trump could make the party more attractive to blue collar whites, in so doing he could also further alienate both non-whites and college educated white voters. This notion is critical to understanding what you might call the demographic trap that the GOP may be increasingly facing in national elections, as highlighted by Trump’s candidacy.

As Timothy Carney details in a fascinating report today, Trump’s strategy appears premised on the idea that his mix of populism, protectionism, immigration restrictionism, and American-greatness nationalism is the secret to appealing to the mostly downscale white voters who stayed home in 2012. “Trump, it seems, has found the missing white voter,” Carney writes.

But if this is true, the question then becomes whether doing what it takes to find and activate this “missing white voter” could prove demographically counter-productive for the GOP — hence, the demographic trap.

Demographic experts such as Ruy Teixeira (who famously predicted back in 2002 that we’d be seeing an “emerging Democratic majority“) believe that there is such a trap. In fact, Teixeira sees this trap in very similar terms to those used by Lizza above. Teixeira, for his part, thinks this trap could be activated even if the GOP doesn’t nominate Trump; you could see a similar effect if, say, the nominee is Ted Cruz. That’s because Cruz (who has stopped short of trafficking in full blown Trumpian levels of xenophobia, but has sidled up to Trump’s anti-Muslim demagoguery and flatly opposes legalization of the 11 million, while attacking Marco Rubio as too soft on “amnesty”), also appears to be shaping his strategy around the idea that the way to win the White House is to drive up turnout among GOP-oriented white constituencies, such as evangelicals and blue collar whites.

Teixeira was the lead demographer on a recent study by the Center for American Progress on the demographics of the 2016 electorate. It concluded that the challenge the GOP faces is that the minority share of the vote is set to rise by two points, from 27 percent to 29 percent, while the share of the vote among non-college whites (who overwhelmingly tilt Republican) is projected to drop by 2.3 percentage points, and the share of the vote among college educated whites (who tilt somewhat less favorably to the GOP than their non-college counterparts) is projected to edge up by 0.4 points. In an interview with me, Teixeira described the resulting demographic trap this way:

The strategy of focusing on white voters presupposes that Republicans have a lot more room to move among that part of the population.  If their path is just to forget about the minority vote and concentrate on increasing the white vote, they might have to reach the support Reagan got in 1984 — 63 or 64 percent of the white vote. Or white turnout would have to increase enough beyond its normal pattern so the share of the minority vote does not increase by two points. That would need a one-sided mobilization of whites. That’s implausible.

If Republicans run a whites-oriented, hard core conservative campaign, swing-ish, moderate, college-educated whites in the GOP coalition may desert to the other side. And it could also drive up the minority vote for Democrats.

The better path for Republicans would be to speak to the white voters who are already disenchanted — there’s been a relatively slow recovery, and there’s time-for-a-change sentiment and populism out there — without necessarily running a hard core campaign. Republicans could have a more economically oriented populism — without being so forthrightly anti-government, anti-social change, and anti-immigrant — and stand a better chance of appealing to white college educated voters and attenuating the Democratic advantage among minorities. If Republicans could get Democratic support among minorities down to 75 percent — and work both sides of the equation — there are more ways to win.

Teixeira’s basic idea, then, is that if the GOP nominee tries to win primarily by increasing the white vote, it would not only require a very large mobilization of whites, and/or very high levels of support among them, but it would also require the minority share of the vote to remain somewhat depressed relative to what demographic trends dictate. But the very rhetoric and proposals needed to mobilize and/or win over whites in that fashion would probably energize minorities in opposition and potentially drive away some college educated whites — both of which would work against the overarching goal of the strategy in the first place.

To be clear, Teixeira absolutely does think Republicans can overcome their demographic disadvantage and win in 2016. But he thinks the more likely way to do it is with the second approach. That is, it’s better to try to capitalize on economic dissatisfaction and time-for-a-change sentiment to cut into minorities while retaining appeal to college educated whites — rather than opting for the Trump (and to some degree Cruz) approach, which appears to be shaped more around the goal of maximizing and profiting politically from white backlash.