By MARK SHIELDS
The Republican family argument has gone public. Warring camps within the GOP agree that their party has lost the national popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. But they disagree vehemently about what to do about it.
One group of Republicans — whom, for lack of imagination, we will call the Shirts — blames the party’s failure to change with the changing times. The Shirts want the party to become, in their words, more modern and practical in order to reach beyond the party’s limited base of support to nonwhite and, especially, younger voters. The Skins’ explanation for the defeats, not surprisingly, is the total opposite, faulting party leaders and candidates for not standing strong and true to the GOP’s core, conservative convictions.
The Republican Skins argue that American voters, when given a choice between a watered-down version of the opposition party and the genuine opposition itself, will choose the real thing instead of a transparently counterfeit concoction.
After all, what was Mitt Romney’s strongest political credential? That he had won in Massachusetts, the bluest of blue states. John McCain, before him, had been almost universally praised for his willingness to break with Republican orthodoxy and to work collegially in the Senate with Democrats. For this, Romney in 2012 collected a grand total of 7 percent of Democratic votes, and in 2008, 90 percent of Democrats chose not to back candidate McCain. Yet Ronald Reagan — a full-blooded, card-carrying conservative — won the support of more than 1 in 4 Democratic voters.
Their Republican Party, Skins are happy to point out, has had only one huge electoral victory in the past 25 years. That, of course, was in 2010, when, led by tea party candidates, the GOP ran an unapologetically conservative campaign and achieved a net gain of 63 House seats. That 2010 landslide constituted the biggest Republican House victory in 64 years.
So why not, Skins ask, repeat that winning 2010 formula in the next presidential election and give voters a real choice? Here is the answer. In the Republicans’ triumphant 2010 elections, just over 87 million voted. In 2012, when Barack Obama became the first U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower to win more than 51 percent of the national vote in successive elections, 129 million Americans voted.
It is not just that 42 million more voters turned out in the presidential year. It is who those voters were. Eighteen million of those who cast a ballot in 2012 but who had not done so in 2010 were Latino, African-American and Asian voters. An additional 8 million of the increased 2012 turnout came from the ranks of voters between the ages of 18 and 29.
Put bluntly, the Democrats won 4 in 5 of the ballots cast by Asian, Latino and African-American voters — providing them in 2012 with a nearly 14 million-vote margin over Republicans. Young voters — who, unlike the case with 2010, represented a substantially larger share of the 2012 electorate than did voters older than 65 and who are the least white age cohort in the nation — provided Democrats overall with close to a net 8 million-vote edge over Republicans.
It’s highly unlikely that a take-no-prisoners conservative campaign by the Republicans in 2016 would convert these growing constituencies of younger, nonwhite voters to their side. So unless the GOP can figure out a way of making sure that more than 40 million voters permanently stay home, the only logical course for the Republicans is to heed the counsel of the GOP’s Shirts and to figure out, in a hurry, how to credibly speak to the concerns and the hopes of voters who are increasingly less old, less white and less Republican.