WASHINGTON, May 21, 2015 — Is the Republican Party dying off?
Politico’s Daniel McGraw thinks so, citing demographic profiles of the parties. He estimates that since President Obama’s November 2012 re-election, 2.75 million Mitt Romney voters have expired, compared to 2.3 million Obama voters. Aside from this being the first time in recorded history that Republicans have won a poll of the dead, it also illustrates a daunting challenge for the GOP. The party’s base is still white—a shrinking demographic—and older—a demographic which expires more frequently.
The problems are real, but an obituary is premature.
The most troubling attrition statistic for Republicans is the fact that Democrats have attracted more first-time voters. The newer, younger and more diverse voters coming into the electorate over the previous two presidential cycles seemed to refresh the Democrats’ ranks as Republicans die off unreplaced.
There’s an unstated problem with the electoral shifts of 2008 and 2012, though: The Democratic Party didn’t win those elections; Barack Obama did.
On the strength of his personality and rhetoric, Obama enjoyed broad appeal in 2008 and maintained base support in 2012. He backed this up with two extremely well-organized campaigns that maximized his contrasts with his challengers – challengers who never really resonated with Republicans, let alone with the electorate at large. When the first-time voters from 2008 expressed less enthusiasm, the Obama machine simply found other voters.
Republicans did well in the mid-terms of 2014 when older, whiter voters represented a larger slice of the electoral pie. But that’s not the only reason for the GOP wave.
The party performed better across almost every measured demographic over their 2012 performance. They might not have won each segment, but cutting their losses was all it took. Campaigns and state parties focused on data-driven field programs to identify and turn out voters, pushing several Republican candidates past their expected performance. Much like Obama in 2012, Republican campaigns dug around for their voters in 2014 and got them to the polls, wherever they were. Such efforts can help campaigns pull supporters from non-traditional constituencies, and it looks like they did just that for Republicans in 2014.
Voter registration helped, too. Campaigns whose plans include registration drives, as the two Obama presidential efforts did, have a built-in advantage with new and first-time voters because they’re recruiting those votes from the beginning. It works just as well on the right as it has for the left. In 2014 Engage Nevada enrolled 30,000 new conservative voters (regardless of party). These voters tended to support Republicans, and the GOP eked out enough victories to win control of the state legislature.
Republican voters now turn to 2016 and consider a field with broad appeal across the party. Despite the density of the field early on, the eventual nominee should enjoy more enthusiasm than the previous two standard-bearers. Combining a charismatic candidate with an excited party and a well-run campaign apparatus usually add up to victory. It may not tip the new and younger voters completely to the right side of the ledger, but it will make those demographics more competitive, which is exactly what the Republicans need.
Republicans have become too reliant on old white voters. There’s plenty of work to do, and last cycle’s success won’t mean a thing for to the people who come out in November 2016. But electorates evolve. With an ever-increasing focus on registration, turnout and data-driven grassroots, the Grand Old Party can get younger and more diverse, and they can do so more quickly than most observers expect.