Republican Hopes Rest on Suburban Comeback

Anytime a party suffers an unexpected defeat, there are two general responses: assigning blame and planning a better strategy for next time.

After Jimmy Carter in 1980 was -- in the words of CBS News’ Bob Schieffer -- “whomped” by Ronald Reagan, Democrats went through both reactions. As would be expected, the Reagan victory caused much debate in Democratic Party circles about how to respond. (Mostly every Democrat except Jimmy Carter’s inner circle agreed that Democratic mistakes had greatly helped Reagan.)

More traditional Democrats like Walter Mondale believed that Reagan's victory was largely due to national anger over inflation and the Iran hostage crisis; they proposed that a labor-based campaign with the old formula of “tax-spend-elect” could restore the party’s strength in urban areas. A new generation of Democrats led by Gary Hart argued that a strategy of targeting the suburbs and the new western cities where labor was less prominent would be necessary. (Jesse Jackson also entered the fray, claiming that he could lead a Rainbow Coalition of minorities that would register massive numbers of new voters to defeat Reagan.) The new Democrats pointed to the fact that the older cities had lost so much population that even a 100% turnout wouldn’t make much difference.

Mondale defeated Hart and Jackson for the 1984 Democratic nomination, and got to test his theory against President Reagan.

The results were not pretty for Democrats, as the dynamic of an ascendant suburban vote was in full force for Reagan. Despite the fact that Mondale received a slightly higher percentage in the ten largest Frost Belt cities (65%) than Hubert Humphrey in 1968 (61%) or Carter in 1980 (also 61%), the suburbs in every large Frost Belt metro area except Pittsburgh either exceeded or matched Mondale’s city margin. Mondale’s performances in these cities ranged from a low of “only” 61% in New York City to a high of 80% in Detroit -- and he still got buried by a tide of Republican suburbanites.

Adding in the usual GOP edge in the rural areas allowed Reagan to easily win every big-city state on the way to a 49-state blowout. The 1984 results seemed to settle the debate among Democrats on the need to reach out to suburbia, though Rev. Jackson remained a true believer in his inner city-based Rainbow Coalition. Eventually, in the 1990s the Democrats under Bill Clinton evolved into the “New Democrat” strategy of appealing to middle class voters and started to win national elections again.

Now, the Republicans after Mitt Romney’s unexpected loss are asking questions about the party’s future. What should be the winning plan for the GOP in 2016 and beyond: mobilizing the Republican base of conservatives, or winning back some of the independents who voted for Obama?

Fox News' Dick Morris argued that Romney lost because not enough white conservatives turned out to vote:

The fundamental reason for Romney’s defeat is apparent, if largely unreported. It is not just that blacks, Latinos, and single women showed up in record numbers at the polls. It’s that whites didn’t. … We lost because whites stayed home.

Morris went on to blame the impact of Hurricane Sandy and the negative ads run by the Obama campaign against Romney’s business career.

While I agree that Sandy helped President Obama and his barrage of negative ads hurt Romney, I don’t believe his theory of a low white turnout is correct. There is a simple explanation for the lower share of white voters in America: demographic replacement. Every year, about two million older white voters die and are largely being replaced by the youngest set of voters, who are mostly Hispanic and Asian. The 2010 Census showed that non-Hispanic whites were down to 64% of the total American population, compared to 69% in 2000. However, the CNN exit poll showed that whites were 72% of the national voters.

So, white voters “over-performed” in terms of turnout.