The Republican Party’s Demographic Time Bomb
by Josh Hinton | University of Missouri
Republicans’ attempts to appeal to older social conservatives will doom them in the near future. By continuing to fail at outmaneuvering liberals on social issues, Republicans are trapping themselves as the party of yesteryear. In fact, the Republican Party hasn’t even attempted to appeal to young people or shifting demographics.
Let’s look at the polls- all of those mentioned in this article are from Gallup in 2011. Among Americans 65 and older, 49 percent identify as conservatives, and 16 percent identify as liberals. For Americans between 18 and 29 years old, only 28 percent identify as conservatives, and the same number as liberals. One might write this off as a persistent generation gap, and that younger people are always more liberal than older people. This is typically true, but some more fundamental changes have been happening lately.
Republicans tend to do poorly in every racial group except whites. In 2008, John McCain won the white vote by 12 percent but lost every other racial group by a two-to-one margin or greater, according to CNN exit polls. As the proportion of Hispanics is expected to double in the next 40 years, Republicans can’t continue being largely a party of white people if they hope to remain prominent. Why have Republicans failed to appeal more broadly, and what can they do about it?
Luckily for them, Republicans’ biggest problem may be their utterly abysmal ability to appeal to new people; as a result, they only need to do a better job at getting their message out. Democrats have easily cast them as the party of old, white, rich social conservatives. As Republicans’ entire messaging lately has involved defending tax cuts for the rich, attacking healthcare reform, going after contraception mandates and gently beating the war drums against Iran, they’ve played right into the Democrats’ hand.
When was the last time you heard Republicans coordinating new legislation to help poor people using conservative principles? They aren’t even trying to use something similar to President Reagan’s (originally President Kennedy’s) “rising tide lifts all boats,” or trickle-down economics, to appeal to the less-fortunate.
It’s not just economic issues. For the first time ever, Gallup finds more than 50 percent of Americans support legalizing gay marriage, up from 40 percent three years ago. Among young people between 18 and 29, support for legalizing gay marriage is 70 percent, almost twice the percentage of support among people 55 and older. Yet only 28 percent of self-identifying Republicans support it, and the Republican Party continues to be officially opposed.
The vast majority of Americans support allowing gay people to serve openly in the military. Republicans are isolating themselves on this issue. The current Republican presidential frontrunner, Rick Santorum, even suggested earlier this year that a child with a father in jail and single mother is better off than a child with two gay parents. This kind of paranoid panic about homosexuality and other issues allows Democrats to monopolize the issue and set the terms going forward. Republicans could easily support allowing gay couples to legally marry (and some do), while leaving the religious aspect of marriage up to the churches as usual.
Another first-ever is majority support for marijuana legalization. Up from 25 percent just 15 years ago, 50 percent now support legalizing marijuana in the United States. This, like gay marriage, is typically a non-starter for conservatives, but there are conservative reasons to support treating marijuana like alcohol. First of all, a wide body of scientific evidence suggests marijuana is safer than cigarettes. Second, who is the government to tell someone what they can do with their body, especially using something safer than a product which is already legal? And third, legalizing marijuana would do massive damage to drug gangs and cartels, just like ending Prohibition damaged organized crime. Sixty-two percent of people 18 to 29 support legalizing marijuana.
Republicans have also abandoned climate change. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence and the fact that the majority of Americans see climate change as a future threat, Republicans refuse to come to the table with ideas from a conservative perspective, allowing Democrats to, again, monopolize the issue. Republicans could easily come up with ideas that don’t involve top-down government regulation, such as tax breaks for companies that reduce pollution.
Finally, the GOP has done a poor job appealing to women. With the recent (legitimate) debate about whether government can mandate a religious institution to pay for contraceptives, Republicans risk wading into another debate that has been over for decades. Let’s take a couple quotes from Rick Santorum’s 2005 book, entitled It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good.
He writes, “radical feminists have succeeded in undermining the traditional family and convincing women that professional accomplishments are the key to happiness” and “for some parents, the purported need to provide things for their children simply provides a convenient rationalization for pursuing a gratifying career outside the home.” He has since backpedaled and blamed those excerpts on his wife who helped him write the book, but the words were very clear. Some women have no choice but to work in order to afford to raise a family.
This all ties together. Republicans have a difficult time adapting their message to changing times and demographics. Conservative principles — small government, low taxes, strong national defense, personal responsibility — are still very popular. Yet the Republican Party has to struggle with Democrats every year during elections, and will continue to lose ground over time if it doesn’t change. Republicans must fit their principles to changing social values, and figure out ways to appeal to more people if they hope to survive in the future.Josh is a graduate of the University of Missouri with a degree in Political Science. He previously wrote political columns for his school's newspaper, The Maneater.