2024 will mark 20 years since Republicans last won the popular vote. Can they rebrand in time to stop losing streak?
2024 will mark a sorry anniversary for the Republican Party: 20 years since President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign won both the popular and Electoral College votes. That feat has since eluded three GOP presidential nominees and one incumbent.
The critical question is, “Are Republicans capable of nominating a winning ticket to halt this embarrassing losing trend?” I doubt it since rapidly changing demographics are reducing the Republicans’ popular vote count in battleground states.
In 2016, Donald Trump was elected president by winning only the Electoral College — a political fluke that he did not repeat in 2020. Moreover, the demeaning label “illegitimate president” can haunt a commander in chief who wins without the popular vote. Just ask George W. Bush, circa 2000.
To understand how this forthcoming non-celebratory 20th anniversary of continuous political loss manifested itself, let’s begin with notable 2004 state voting data and compare it to 2020 state results.
But first, the basic facts: Incumbent President George W. Bush defeated Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in a demure, respectable campaign by today’s standards. Bush won the popular vote 50.7 to 48.3 percent and the Electoral College vote 286 to 251.
Subsequently, four states totaling 32 electoral votes that contributed to Bush topping 270 in 2004 have since become GOP Electoral College “dropouts.” Starting in 2008, every Democratic presidential ticket has won the following states (with their 2024 electoral votes in parentheses): Virginia (13), Colorado (10), Nevada (6) and New Mexico (5).
Where does the Republican Party go to replace those 34 electoral votes? Good question. GOP presidential candidates dream about turning back the clock but wake up to face this daunting data:
In 2004, Bush won Virginia by a safe 8.2 percentage point margin, but in 2020 Biden won by an even safer 10.1 points.
Colorado used to be Bush country by a comfortable margin of 4.7 percentage points. Then in 2020, Biden achieved an astounding 13.5-point victory.
New Mexico was a 2004 Bush squeaker where he won by 0.7 percentage point. Yet, Biden triumphed with 10.8 points.
Then in Nevada, Bush took the state by only 2.6 points, and Biden won with a 3-point margin.
As referenced earlier, the comparative data from those four states demonstrate a more significant demographic voter problem that will dog the Republican Party into 2024. Here is the major obstacle using data from the Roper Center from 2004 and 2020:
In 2004, whites composed 77 percent of voters, a share that shrunk to 67 percent by 2020. Bush was reelected in 2004 after winning the white vote 58 to 41 percent over Kerry. But in 2020, Trump lost reelection to Joe Biden even after winning whites 58 to 41 percent — the same percentage Bush won in 2004.
Hence, that 10 percent drop in whites as a share of voters from 2004 to 2020 proved detrimental to Trump. And in 2024, the white percentage will continue shrinking (perhaps by three points), the same decrease from 2016 to 2020, when white voters dipped from 70 to 67 percent.
By comparison, 1984 Roper data show that 86 percent of voters were white when President Reagan won his reelection landslide, winning them 66 to 34 percent over former Vice President Walter Mondale.
While still heavily relying on white voters, the Republican Party continues to lose states that had historically been red — most prominently Georgia and Arizona in 2020. So again, let’s compare both states to Bush’s 2004 benchmark victory to grasp the GOP’s precipitous decline.
Bush won Arizona by 10.5 percentage points. Sixteen years later, Biden eked out a 0.3 percentage point surprise defeat over Trump — who in 2016 had won Arizona by 3.6 percentage points. Thus, in 2024, Arizona catapults to the highest tier of battleground states with its 11-vote Electoral College prize.
Georgia in 2024 will garner even more money and media attention. Its newly acquired battleground status illustrates the Republican Party’s vulnerability. In 2004, Bush conquered Georgia with a 16.6 percentage point blowout, while Trump won by a respectable 5.2 points in 2016. Then in 2020, Trump and Republicans were stunned when Biden managed a 0.2 percentage point win, earning 16 new blue electoral votes, and the fallout continues in court.
Republicans losing popular and electoral votes in states once considered safe will force the party into a 270-vote math fight where the electoral-rich “blue wall” states of Pennsylvania (19), Wisconsin (10) and Michigan (15) become “must-win” for Republicans. That is a desperate and expensive situation involving 44 electoral votes and the White House at stake.
In 2004, Bush lost Pennsylvania (21), Michigan (17) and Wisconsin (10), then totaling 48 electoral votes, but he had enough of an electoral cushion to reach 270 without the trio. Now the Bush cushion has deflated.
Trump, who lost the popular vote in 2016, was elected president because he busted through the triple blue wall by winning an extra 77,744 votes spread across Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — earning 46 electoral votes. Then in 2020, those three states reverted to blue when Biden won with similarly close margins as Trump in 2016.
The Republican Party faces a crisis due to its shrinking white voter base unless it makes commensurate gains among the growing non-white electorate, which totaled 33 percent of voters in 2020 and which Biden won 71 to 26 percent over Trump. That 33 percent will increase in 2024.
Nearly 20 years after he became the last Republican to win the popular and electoral votes, George W. Bush has ironically become an outcast in a Trump-dominated party. GOP voters in 2024 are unlikely to nominate a candidate who can match Bush’s 2004 achievement, which will require a major realignment and rebranding.
Myra Adams writes about politics and religion for numerous publications. She is a RealClearPolitics contributor and served on the creative team of two GOP presidential campaigns in 2004 and 2008. Follow her on Twitter @MyraKAdams.
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