TAMPA—As they assemble in Tampa, the Republicans should consider not just whether they can win back the presidency in November, but whether they can create a viable majority that can endure past an election cycle. But they won’t. Mitt Romney and his party are oblivious to their longer term prospects. They are committed to a strategy that may win this year, but will lead to another Democratic landslide in two or four years.
For a party out of power, the key to creating a viable majority is to pick up important groups within the opposition’s coalition, and to increase the support of groups within its own coalition. In 1980, Reagan brought into the Republican party the Southern and white working class voters that had begun moving away from the Democratic party in 1966. At the same time, he retained traditional Republican support among the business and professional classes. From 1992 to 2008, Democrats picked up professionals and Northern suburbanites—women in particular—who had become disenchanted with the Republicans’ social agenda. The Democrats also dramatically increased their vote among minorities, and particularly among Latinos. As the white working class vote has shrunk, the minority proportion of the electorate has risen, giving the Democrats a demographic advantage. This advantage is evident in a state like California, but also in states like North Carolina or Colorado that Obama won in 2008.
What, then, could be the path to a Republican resurgence? The first thing would be to break the Democratic hold on the minority vote by winning back a reasonable share of the Hispanic vote—say, 40 percent or more, which Republicans once got. Success in this case depends on advancing policies on immigration that win favor among Hispanics, but it also may hinge on Republicans take the side of Hispanics in a battle over scare public resources with blacks. One could see this kind of black-Hispanic division surfacing in 2005 Los Angeles mayoral election pitting James Hahn, who enjoyed black support, against Antonio Villaraigosa.
George W. Bush and Karl Rove always understood the importance of the Hispanic vote to the Republican future. That accounted for Bush’s support for immigration reform; his repudiation in the summer of 2000 of Republican congressional attempts to eviscerate social spending (you can’t attract the Latino vote by promising to dismantle the welfare state); and by the elevation of half-Latino George P. Bush at the convention and during the campaign. Bush got about 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000 and above 40 percent in 2004, although the exact numbers are in dispute.
The second element of a Republican strategy would consist of cutting into the Democratic advantage among women and professionals. Bush and Rove were also into that. In 2000, Bush ran on a slogan of “compassionate conservatism,” he kept the religious right at bay during the conventions (and in 2000, believe it or not, said he would not impose a litmus test on the appointment of Supreme Court justices) and he tried to convey through the prominence of Colin Powell at the 2000 convention a politics of tolerance and inclusion. Bush did not create a lasting majority—the Iraq war, the Great Recession, and his unwillingness or inability, once in office, to defy the radicals in his own party doomed the Republicans in 2008—but his political efforts in 2000 and 2004 at least showed an understanding of what Republicans had to do to create a majority.
In 2012, the Republican presidential nominee enjoys favorable circumstances. Barack Obama remains saddled with an economic downturn; and he has been unable to clearly establish himself as the candidate of Main Street against Wall Street. But Mitt Romney could not only lose the election, but set back any attempt by the Republicans to re-position themselves as a majority party. Romney has abandoned Bush and Rove’s strategy. He has taken a hard line against illegal immigration, backing measures in Arizona and other states that would stigmatize Latinos; desperate to defeat Texas Gov. Rick Perry, he even opposed Perry’s attempt to provide tuition for the children of illegal immigrants. Little that Romney can do at the Republican convention will erase an impression of hard intolerance toward Hispanics. Romney will be lucky if he wins 30 percent of the Latino vote.
Bush and Rove understood that majority coalitions have never been built on strict consensus. Instead, successful coalitions are heterogeneouos. They include groups (such as Southern whites and Northern blacks during the New Deal) that don’t get along with each other, but still prefer the one party coalition to the other. And a successful candidate will offend one part of the coalition (with the expectation they’ll still vote for him) in order to reach out to parts of the opposing coalition. Bush could support immigration reform and pick off Hispanic votes with the expectation that he would still win white working class votes. But Romney, perhaps because he is not really a Republican conservative, has sought to be all things to all parts of the Republican base—from the Tea Party opponents of any social spending to the nativists worried about a Mexican takeover of America to religious conservatives wanting to ban all abortions. As a result, Romney has closed off opportunities to pick off parts of the Democratic coalition.
Romney’s strategy is largely a reprise of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election strategy, minus Reagan’s public show of amiability and his support among Hispanics. With his recent ads on welfare, Romney is playing on the racial resentments of the white working class the same way Reagan did. Meanwhile, Republicans—perhaps with Romney’s support—are attempting to reduce the Democrats’ support among minorities by keeping them from the polls by passing new voting regulations. The Romney-Republican strategy is the dark side of the older Republican strategy: the Reagan of hardline conservative Pat Buchanan rather than of public relations man Michael Deaver. It could still work in November 2012—because of Obama’s weakness among the electorate. But it won’t lay the basis for a new Republican majority. If anything, it will guarantee the Republicans’ defeat in the decade to come.