Adam Gabbatt of the Guardian newspaper holds images of possible Republican candidates. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Chief correspondent

The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) drew a flock of prospective presidential candidates, attracted a huge media throng and generated lots of commentary this past week. A smaller conference in a downtown office building last Tuesday might have revealed as much about how presidential races will play out in 2016 and beyond.

What CPAC underscored was not just how wide open the Republican nominating contest is at this early stage — not exactly new news — but also how much more substantial the 2016 field of prospective candidates looks compared with the 2012 field.

Setting aside applause meter readings or straw-poll results, the conference also showed that Republican voters have plenty of choices this cycle, no matter their criteria for choosing, whether it is ideology, philosophy, style, experience, generational appeal or the pragmatic question of who’s most capable of defeating Hillary Rodham Clinton.

All of that is important because candidates and campaigns matter. But fundamentals also matter, and few are more important than the changing face of America. That was highlighted anew by the study produced by three think tanks — the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institution — called States of Change.

The report, written by Ruy Teixeira, William H. Frey and Robert Griffin, is rich with data and includes interactive charts that show the changing demographics of the states.

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference is at the National Harbor, as conservative students and activists hear from 2016 hopefuls. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the sights and sounds of CPAC 2015. (Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

The authors focus on what’s happened to the country demographically since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, a watershed political moment in the country’s history. But they also look forward, as far as 2060, to project what America will look like then.

It’s well accepted that America becomes more diverse by that year and that with each presidential cycle the share of white voters declines and that of non-white voters increases. The pace is steady overall but is changing at different rates in different states.

Already, for example, there are four states — California, Texas, New Mexico and Hawaii — where minorities make up a majority of the overall population (though not necessarily the population of eligible voters, an important distinction).

Two more — Nevada and Maryland — will hit that marker before the end of this decade, with the pattern continuing steadily. By 2060, there will be 22 such states, accounting for roughly two-thirds of the nation’s population, according to the report.

For the purposes of elections, what is more important is the changing shape of the eligible voter population. Here the story is somewhat different.

The report states that in 1980, 16 percent of eligible voters were minorities, about 4 points lower than their share of the overall population. Today they account for 30 percent of the eligible voter pool — but that is 7 points lower than their share of the overall population.

The authors expect that to change in the future. Many of today’s minorities are immigrants — legal and illegal — and therefore not citizens eligible to vote. In the future, the growth of the minority population will be driven more by birthrates rather than by immigration. The report projects that by 2060, minorities will account for 54 percent of the eligible voter pool, just 2 points lower than their share of the population.

The racial composition of the electorate is the biggest change underway, but there are others that could shape election returns. Teixeira highlighted some in his presentation last Tuesday.

Baby boomers are in decline, having peaked as a share of the electorate in 1982 at 45 percent. They’re now about a third of the eligible voters, compared with millennials at about 28 percent. By November 2016, millennials could make up a slightly larger share than boomers.

Education levels also are changing the electorate. In 1980 only about 14 percent had a college degree or more. Today it’s 30 percent. When Reagan won his first election, about three-quarters of eligible voters were classified as white working class. That’s dropped to 47 percent today, a decline of 26 points.

In 1980, about 70 percent of eligible voters were married, 30 percent unmarried. By the 2016 election, they will account for almost identical shares.

Over the long term, these trends pose greater challenges to Republicans than to Democrats. President Obama has built a coalition around the groups whose share of the population is on the rise. There’s no disagreement that Republicans over time must expand their appeal to non-white voters.

In the shorter term, the current partisan leanings of different demographic groups, along with the racial makeup of congressional districts, have resulted in a political standoff that continues to paralyze the political system in Washington.

Ronald Brownstein of Atlantic Media, a panelist at the conference, noted that the state of current politics can be reduced to one sentence: Republicans cannot win enough minorities to consistently win the White House while Democrats cannot win enough whites to control the House of Representatives.

The Republican politicians who appeared at CPAC are not worried about 2060 or 2040 or even probably 2020. Their focus is on winning in 2016. Nothing says they cannot, but how they do it became a topic of discussion during the sessions held at AEI.

Republican pollster Whit Ayres noted the GOP’s deficiency among non-white voters and the strain that will put on the party’s 2016 nominee. Mitt Romney won a higher share of the white vote in 2012 than either Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008 or then-president George W. Bush in 2004 and still lost the election.

With the white share continuing to decline and Clinton likely to do no worse and perhaps a point or two better among whites than Obama, the GOP nominee in 2016 will need to do noticeably better among non-whites than any of the last three Republican nominees.

“It looks bad for my party right now but it’s hardly locked in, and a transformational candidate could fundamentally alter the party ID of many of those people, just like Ronald Reagan altered the party ID of young people back during the 1980s,” Ayres said.

Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center offered a counter view. He suggested that unknown events between now and 2060 could have the profound impact of reshaping the coalitions of the two parties, just as, say, the New Deal, did in moving African American voters from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party.

Olsen said that in the shorter term, from now to 2024, Republican prospects might be better served by not trying to find a candidate who can play best in swing states with rising Hispanic populations.

Instead, he argued, Republicans for now would be better off with a candidate who has maximum appeal in a block of Midwest or industrial states — Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Iowa — where he said white working-class voters make up the single biggest share of the electorate and where the GOP scored victories in 2010 and 2014.

Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, disagreed with Olsen, arguing that, while Republicans have done well in statewide elections in those heartland states in midterm elections, a strategy based on increasing the party’s share of the white vote is a dubious approach. Olsen contended that his analysis is not altered by turnout differences.

Ayres did not name any particular candidate as the most potentially transformational for the GOP, but his analysis would point to someone like former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida or Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, all of whom have potential to find some new voters for the GOP. By Olsen’s analysis, Republicans would do better with someone like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker rather than Bush.

The coming campaign will determine who is the most skillful among the Republican candidates as well as what kind of appeal a Candidate Clinton will have. But beneath the surface, the fundamentals will remain a powerful force in determining the ultimate outcome.