The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Was the 2012 Republican autopsy wrong?

President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally in New York on Nov. 9. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
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Less than four years after a special report from the Republican National Committee’s Growth & Opportunity Project urged Republicans to broaden their appeal to minorities, women and younger voters, GOP nominee Donald Trump won the White House because of landslide-level support from whites.

Was the report, which warned the party “will lose future elections” unless it addresses its demographics problems, simply wrong? Did it misread the demographic tea leaves?

If the report wasn’t wrong, it was, as veteran GOP consultant Brad Todd argued right after Trump’s victory, “certainly premature.”

In the first election after the party’s 2013 autopsy, Republicans nominated a 70-year old white man who added a 57-year-old white man to his ticket. But more importantly, the presidential nominee spent his campaign criticizing Mexico, Mexicans and Americans of Hispanic ancestry. He mocked and belittled his opponents, whether they were Republicans, Democrats or those in the media.

Yet, he won.

Yes, Trump went to a black church here and there, bragged that Hispanics “loved” him, and asked African Americans what they had to lose by voting for him. But Donald Trump was not a poster child for tolerance or diversity.

Unsurprisingly, Trump fared poorly once again with the very groups identified in the Growth & Opportunity Project’s report. According to the exit poll, he won 8 percent of African Americans and 29 percent of both Latinos and Hispanics – not much different than Mitt Romney’s showing in 2012.

In addition, Trump won 37 percent of voters 18-29 and 42 percent of women. Again, those numbers aren’t dramatically different from Romney’s showings four years ago.

And yet, he won.

The good news for Republicans is that they will have a president and both houses of Congress. And they could win again in 2018 and 2020, depending on President Trump’s performance.

A successful Trump presidency, which presumably would mean a more vibrant economy and a world at relative peace, could attract more non-white and younger voters to this party, fundamentally altering the partisan landscape and the shape of American politics.

Moreover, two years from now, when the midterms roll around, Republican candidates could benefit from recent midterm turnout trends, which reflect higher turnout by older, affluent whites (who normally lean Republican) and lower turnout by Latinos and younger voters (who currently prefer Democrats).

Still, the GOP ought not ignore the demographic changes ahead, which certainly are coming. While the report was flat out wrong about 2016 and may be wrong about 2020 as well, it is likely to be correct about 2024 or 2028.

It is possible, maybe even likely, that the 2016 election was something of a “dead cat bounce.” Rather than foreshadowing the nation’s political and demographic future, the election may well have been the last gasp of a slice of the country that wants to return to the culture, values and economy of the 1980s, or even the 1950s.

Even with Trump’s victory, the nation’s demographic shift continued. Whites constituted 70 percent of all voters earlier this month, down from 72 percent in 2012, 74 percent in 2008, 77 percent in 2004 and 81 percent in 2000. Those same whites were 88 percent of all voters in 1980, the year I arrived in the nation’s capital.

This year, blacks fell from 13 percent to 12 percent of the electorate, but Latinos increased from 10 percent to 11 percent and Asians increased from 3 percent to 4 percent.

The country and the electorate are changing, even if whites 45 years old and older were the driving force behind Trump’s victory. Whites constituted a smaller percentage of the electorate but gave him a very slightly larger margin than they gave Romney – an outcome that gives Republicans only a very narrow route for future Electoral College victories.

While the 2013 GOP autopsy may have been premature in sounding the alarm for the party, it was not amiss in urging party strategists to remember that demographic changes are afoot.

That means Republican strategists probably should continue to talk to whites but also look for ways to attract minority and younger voters, who will play an increasingly important role in American elections over the next few decades.

That doesn’t mean adopting the liberal agenda, of course. But it does mean showing how the Republican agenda (whatever that is in the Trump era) can work for all.

The danger, of course, is that Trump’s victory will mislead Republicans into believing that the Trump coalition is a static majority that can be replicated indefinitely. Given Clinton’s popular vote advantage, as well as her unique weaknesses as a nominee, that seems unlikely.

The worst-case scenario for Republicans is particularly worrisome for them.

Depending how he governs, Donald Trump could be Pete Wilson, the former California governor, whose support from Proposition 187 turned Latinos against the GOP in California, emasculating a state Republican Party that is barely competitive in the nation’s largest state.

For all of the talk about the Democrats’ problems with working-class white voters, it is better for a party to do well with segments of the electorate that are growing – such as Latinos, millennials, Asian Americans and college-educated voters – than with those groups who peaked decades ago.

Every election is different in its nominees, context and electorate. How the new president performs, and how the two parties react to future events, will determine which party will grow and which will shrink. But ignoring the nation’s demographic changes is not the recipe for future successes.

Stuart Rothenberg writes about the politics of the presidential and congressional races.

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