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Sins and salvation of the Republican Party

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No sooner had the projections in Ohio suggested that Barack Obama would have a second term than pundits began a defenestration of what remained of the Republican Party. In an economy where growth remains low, the long-term unemployed continue to drop out of the labor force, and the incumbent had to deal with the baggage of overpromising four years ago, 2012 was the Republicans’ election to lose. And lost it was, handing Obama a decisive victory in all heavily contested states.

The issues with the Romney campaign were manifold. Any analysis must begin with the fact that the Republican nominee was an earnest but cold candidate who did not manage to connect with the American electorate. Worse than that, his campaign’s failure to successfully challenge attacks against his past in private equity tainted his appeal before an electorate that hardly knew a man running for president for the last seven years. At a time of “lean cows” across the developing world and with particular intensity in the post-Occupy Wall Street United States, Romney’s experience as a successful restructurer of businesses came off as elitist and devoid of social purpose – an issue only exacerbated by his remarks about the “47%.”

One only needed to find the hugely popular parody of Romney’s wealth on YouTube to see the extent of the damage (“You should elect me because I have so much money, Mitt Romney style,” a look-alike sings in the midst of private jets and mansions, all in “Gangnam Style.”). In contrast, despite his own wealth and general lack of passion during the campaign – particularly during his lackluster first presidential debate – President Obama’s image remained untouched by such associations.

Yet there is something far more critical at the core of the Republican defeat: a structural change in American demographics that has put presidential victory beyond the reach of the current Grand Old Party (GOP), as the Republicans are historically known. In the words of a seasoned Republican amidst the ethnically, culturally, and economically homogeneous faces at the Romney headquarters on election night: “The country has changed, but this Party has not. Something has got to give.”

And that something will not be demographics, for they are – to a large extent – history. It is telling indeed that in five out of the last six elections in the United States, the GOP has not been able to win the popular vote (the 2000 Bush victory, as you might recall, involved a controversial Florida result that negated Gore’s popular vote victory.) In 2012, despite the President’s economic handicap and “change” baggage, Romney only mustered to obtain 48% of the popular vote against Obama’s 52%. 2012 lacked the aura excitement that characterized 2008, yet this difference still amounted to over two million votes.

At the center of this demographic change lie statistics that could have been summarized by the sights in TV coverage of the campaign headquarters on November 6th. While at the Romney headquarters cameras showed an ethnically and socioeconomically homogenous crowd, a truly eclectic group gathered in Chicago to cheer Obama’s salient victory speech.

Homogeneity puts victory beyond reach. 77% of the voters in the 2004 election that resulted in Bush’s re-election were white, yet by this election the group had fallen to 72% of the voting public. Romney got 60% of that vote, which – as Christopher Caldwell has argued – would have easily brought him to the White House during any of the elections during which Romney’s political positions matured. It is the United States that has since changed.

So where is the difference? It is not really about “millenials” – the much-discussed, Twitter-writing demographic that Obama so excited in 2008 – but rather about a combination of America’s three fastest growing minorities: African-Americans, Asians, and Hispanics.

The lack of Republican appeal among African-Americans is unsurprising and has little to do with Obama’s race. Since the civil rights movement in the 1960s, this is a demographic that has moved farther and farther away from the GOP. But even the short-term comparisons are stark: according to exit polls, Obama actually increased his appeal among African-Americans by over 10% between 2008 and 2012, meaning that more of them voted for Obama in this second election than during the first. Back in 2008, Senator McCain managed to attract some support among the demographic, whereas Romney won a paltry 6% of their vote.

Among Asian-Americans, the Republican focus on promoting economic freedoms and their deification of the “Reagan agenda” of liberalization should have yielded better results. After all, this demographic is highly educated and usually affluent, even if sometimes concentrated in Democratic-leaning, coastal urban areas. Only 26% of Asian-American voters, however, supported Romney.

As for the Hispanic vote, it is, by and large, socially conservative and selectively right-of-center on foreign affairs, two traditional pillars of Republican politics, even if the strength of the second issue is waning as new generations of Florida Cubans are less attached to fervent anti-Communism. Against this background, the Republican result this November can safely be labeled a disaster, with: while George W. Bush attracted as much as 40% of a Latino vote, Romney only managing to muster 27% support.

Perhaps the most important point about Hispanics is that their numbers have been growing rapidly in key states for any US presidential race. This applies to Florida, of course, but also to other states where the trend is not obviously clear until one looks at the detailed state-level demographics: Nevada, Colorado, Ohio, and even Virginia, all among the focus states where the 2012 campaign trail showed candidates heavily investing time and money. All this suggests that, in short, the GOP cannot afford a recent trend of disenfranchisement and neglect that has decimated their Hispanic support, even despite the rise of individuals like Senator Marco Rubio, for a while tossed around as a potential VP pick.

These statistics tell a straightforward story: the appeal of the GOP is currently too limited among rapidly growing minorities.

As of late, the GOP platform has been shaped by the zealous Tea Party that brought them mid-term victory in 2010. But for all their Congressional appeal (after all, Republicans safely control the House of Representatives), the outcome of the presidential election makes crystal clear the fact that a simple majority is impossible for a loud, but ultimately not plural, agenda.

Specifically, the post-Tea Party Republican Party has become vociferous on two issues that have particularly alienated Hispanic voters: immigration and welfare. On immigration, an issue where the status of illegals have clouded a debate that should have focused more on economic migration, Republicans quietly dropped the sensible proposals from the Bush years in favor of intransigence. On welfare, the damage of faux pas like Romney’s “47%” speech is obvious when seeing the income distribution of Republican voters. Even a cursory look at the circus of the Republican primary season earlier this year proved that the influence of extreme conservatives had turned the whole affair into a collection of impossible, ideologically-driven vitriol and platitudes.

Nothing breeds reflection like defeat. But the civil war that will beckon the Republican Party in the aftermath of November 6th risks further alienating a centrist, fiscally responsible agenda to the advantage of fringe pursuits without hope of majority appeal. Such a move would hurt not only the GOP, but also the quality of American democracy. But the demographics should persuade the party to move to the other direction: Republicans need a massive change in message, a recalibration of their appeal based on the structural realities of modern America.

Like Reagan looked to Thatcher, so should Republicans look at the years in the wilderness of the post-Thatcher Conservatives during the Blair decade in the UK. The lesson to be drawn from the re-branding and re-focusing of the Tories involves a more realistic assessment of the desires of the electorate at large, and not merely the narrow Conservative base. After all, even fringe groups hate to lose several elections in a row.

So what can Republicans expect to change? Three clusters of issues stand out. To begin with, a fresh look to positions on social issues is paramount. Even though this will be anathema to certain religious groups, the libertarian dogma of former Vice-President Dick Cheney should prevail: “Freedom means freedom for all.” The same largely applies to the Republican position on women’s reproductive rights, which caused no gain and major problems for the presidential ticket in the last election. Climate change also requires a rethink.

Perhaps more crucially, the economic message needs to be rebranded. Rather than merely attacking any welfare, Republicans should understand that Americans – despite the stereotypes – like sensible public good provision and some sort of safety net. Those are not going away. So the Republican economic argument should center on fixing the intergenerational imbalance that Democratic positions on social security and healthcare seem to be worsening. These are issues championed by the promising Romney VP, Paul Ryan, a man whose relatively modest upbringing stands in contrast to the perception of Republicans as a plutocratic power. Something similar applies to decrying crony capitalism and favoring free trade and fair competition, issues where Democrats usually lag given their union ties.

Finally, the GOP needs to return to the Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” when it comes to immigration. The disaster case in this arena is the destiny that befell a moderate like Romney, cornered into arguing for a position as ludicrous as that of “self-deportation.”

Ten years from now, the disastrous Republican campaign of 2012 will be seen as a  harbinger of two disparate futures: should the Party continue to the ignore the demographic changes that have radically altered the American landscape where it could at least hope to win the popular vote, 2012 will be seen as the confirmation that the years “in the wilderness” will be long even despite lackluster Democratic presidencies like Obama’s first term. But this defeat can also inspire necessary and ultimately successful renewal, embracing the minorities that make up the future of the United States along with a rebranding moving it closer to the UK Conservatives. A simple look at the diversity of the 2016’s campaign headquarters will suggest which one of these futures the GOP will choose.