Donald Trump and the Republican Party’s lost decade
After Mitt Romney’s decisive 2012 loss to Barack Obama, the Republican National Committee undertook a self-study examining the party’s faults and how it might change. Although Romney’s campaign was certain of victory, the increasing numbers of young, women and minority voters gave Obama the win. Republican leaders believed their party must either reform or lose more elections. The result was a report issued by the Republican National Committee titled “The Growth and Opportunity Project,” which concluded, “We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too.”
Political parties often don’t think in the long term since the next election is always right around the corner. But occasionally, they do step back and consider the future. In 1928, Democrats took note of a rising tide of Catholic immigrants and selected the Catholic New York governor, Alfred E. Smith, as their presidential nominee. While Smith lost decisively to an unbeatable Herbert Hoover, he made significant inroads among urban Catholics.
By 1932, with the Great Depression entering its third year, Franklin D. Roosevelt capitalized on Smith’s advances and easily beat Hoover, beginning an unprecedented run of Democratic occupancy of the Oval Office. In a similar manner, Democrats reexamined themselves during the 1980s after three successive presidential defeats. They rebranded themselves “New Democrats,” eschewing Franklin Roosevelt’s big government approach and declaring, as Bill Clinton did, that “the era of big government is over.”
What Republicans began in 2012, Donald Trump undid. Rejecting the advice of party elders, Trump railed against Hispanic immigrants, branding most of them criminals and drug addicts and promising to build a wall to keep them out of the country. In 2016, he won just 28 percent of the Hispanic vote. Four years later, Trump improved slightly, receiving 32 percent support.
In 2022, 60 percent of Hispanic voters backed Democratic congressional candidates, enough for Democrats to win crucial races in Arizona, Nevada and Texas. Today, first-time Latino voters are outpacing newly registered non-Latinos in Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada, New York and Texas. In 2012, The Growth and Opportunity Project concluded, “If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States, they will not pay attention to our next sentence. It does not matter what we say about education, jobs, or the economy.”
What Trump did accomplish was converting many blue-collar voters and non-college educated voters of all races to a redesigned Trump Republican Party. Republican votes surged in depressed blue-collar areas and in rural America, along with solid GOP support in Appalachia. West Virginia – formerly a staunch Democratic bastion won by Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Michael Dukakis in 1988 – was one of Trump’s best performing states in 2020. But Appalachia is not a growing part of the U.S., and to secure the party’s long-term future Republicans must overperform in suburban counties that were once solid GOP bastions.
The American electorate is constantly changing as older voters die and young voters replace them. In a country where the presence of more minority voters is a certainty, Republicans find themselves unprepared to face the future. In the past four presidential elections, Republicans have captured 31 percent, 36 percent, 28 percent and 35 percent of the youth vote, respectively.
New Hampshire’s Republican governor, Chris Sununu, has issued a stark warning: “If Republicans don’t understand the generational gap that we have right now, ’28, ’30, ’32, and 2026 are going to be disastrous for the Republican party.” If a party can win younger voters, it is likely to keep them for the long term. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan did that during their presidencies. Today, Barack Obama and Joe Biden are doing the same.
Summarizing the Republican Party’s difficulties, “The Growth and Opportunity Project” concluded, “We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue.”
Today, the Republican straitjacket is stronger than ever. Republicans are determined to rewrite the history of the Jan. 6 riots, a dark day that still deeply disturbs many Americans. In 2022, election-denying Republicans lost crucial races in Pennsylvania and Arizona. This year, Republicans elevated election-deniers to positions of state party chairs in Kansas, Michigan and Colorado. Colorado’s new Republican leader, Dave Williams, says that Joe Biden is “not a legitimate President.”
The overturning of Roe v. Wade by a conservative Supreme Court is fraught with danger for the GOP’s future prospects, as majorities of women, younger voters and independents disagree with the decision. As the abortion question shifts to governors and state legislatures for resolution, voters have turned to Democrats to protect abortion rights.
In Michigan, for example, Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer won a decisive reelection victory in 2022, bringing with her Democratic control of that state’s legislature for the first time in nearly 40 years. Crucially, in 2022, Democrats added state legislative seats, a reversal from their devastating losses during the Obama years.
The result is a Trump-dominated Republican Party that has sown grave doubts about its ability to govern. In 2022, voters were unhappy with Joe Biden and concerned about inflation, immigration and crime. But they hit the pause button on giving Republicans unfettered power. The 2010s were a lost decade for the Republican Party, and unless the party takes stock of itself, the 2020s promise to be another lost decade. It’s likely that only losing the presidency in 2024 will cause Republicans to begin the painful process of undertaking another candid self-study.
John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. His latest book, co-authored with Matthew Kerbel, is “American Political Parties: Why They Formed, How They Function, and Where They’re Headed.” He can be reached at johnkennethwhite.com
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