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GOP searches for its missing white voters

Posted: August 8, 2013 1:52 p.m.
Updated: August 9, 2013 5:00 a.m.

Remember how Republican leaders vowed to improve their outreach to minorities after Mitt Romney’s demographic disaster in November? Well, not so fast, amigos. A lot of folks in the Grand Old Party’s conservative wing prefer to tap another group that let them down: the “missing white voters.”

They’re the focus of a widely discussed four-part post-election series by Sean Trende, senior elections analyst at RealClearPolitics, revisiting a theme he raised last November in an article titled “The Case of the Missing White Voters.”

“Democrats liked to mock the GOP as the ‘Party of White People’ after the 2012 elections,” Trende wrote. “But from a purely electoral perspective, that’s not a terrible thing to be. Even with present population projections, there are likely to be a lot of non-Hispanic whites in this country for a very long time.”

Comprehensive immigration reform was named in a post-election “autopsy” by Republican National Committee leaders as essential to patching up frayed relations with Hispanic voters, in particular. But legislation has since run up against a major pushback by House Republicans after passing the Democratic-controlled Senate.

No sweat, says Trende. “(T)he 2012 elections actually weren’t about a demographic explosion with non-white voters,” he wrote. “Instead, they were about a large group of white voters not showing up.”

Using available exit poll and census data, Trende estimates the actual turnout of blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other non-whites was about 2 million less than in 2008, but that was less of a decline than the 6 million drop-off in the white vote.

That backs up a position advanced by conservatives Phyllis Schlafly and Pat Buchanan and the nonpartisan Center for Immigration Studies. Maybe, they argue, the GOP should focus on white voters (who comprised 72 percent of the electorate in 2012) instead of worrying so much about Latinos.

But unless the party wants to confine itself to local, state and regional power, it needs to reach out to all constituencies, argue GOP establishment figures like consultant Karl Rove. Otherwise the math doesn’t add up, he wrote in a June op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. Romney, who won 59 percent of white voters, would have needed 62.54 percent to beat President Obama, Rove writes. “That’s a tall order, given that Ronald Reagan received 63 percent of the white vote in his 1984 victory, according to the Congressional Quarterly’s analysis of major exit polls,” Rove writes. “It’s unreasonable to expect Republicans to routinely pull numbers that last occurred in a 49-state sweep.”

I don’t often agree with Rove, but I think he’s right this time. As the “autopsy” report found in polls and focus groups, the GOP has lost touch with a lot of voters across racial and ideological lines, leading to their fifth presidential election out of the last six in which the GOP failed to win a majority of the popular vote.

What happened to the missing white voters? Democrats asked that same question after 1988, their fifth loss of the previous six. They responded by reconnecting with working class white “Reagan Democrats” and reoriented their message back to the political center to solve problems, not just present policy arguments.

Those days come back to mind in Trende’s county-by-county analysis of turnout in the key swing state of Ohio: Romney’s worst turnout rates occurred in economically hard-hit rural areas like southeastern Ohio.

It is not unreasonable to see a connection between the “missing white voters” of 2012 and recent polls that shows a widening optimism gap between the races.

The new analysis by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago finds only 46 percent of white Americans say their family has a good chance of improving their living standard, compared to 71 percent of blacks and 73 percent of Hispanics. That’s the widest racial gap in optimism that AP-NORC has reported since 1987.

Trende’s candid language drew some predictable criticism, but he was not calling for the GOP to ignore minority voters. He mainly argues that the fate of the parties will not turn on a single issue like immigration. On that point, he’s right. There’s no need for the parties to argue over which Americans deserve their attention most. We all do.

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