RELEASE of the Republican National Committee's 2012 “autopsy” report has prompted much commentary and reflection among conservatives. To the degree it improves voter-outreach efforts and logistical focus, that's good. But too much reaction can be summed up as follows: Republicans are too old and too white. Conservatism is doomed!
Those hitting the panic button should relax. Demographics aren't destiny. Anyone looking at Oklahoma's voter registration in 1980 would have concluded Democrats had a perpetual lock on the Legislature. Today, their numbers are decimated. Furthermore, the racial and gender diversity of high-profile Oklahoma Republican leaders today is greater than the diversity produced by Oklahoma Democrats when they were in charge. Oklahoma Republicans did not abandon conservatism to achieve those results.
History proves voter preferences are never permanently set in stone; current trends don't continue forever. Whites have declined from 89 percent of voters in 1976 to 72 percent in 2012. Writing this month in Commentary magazine, Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson noted that if the United States' demographic composition were the same in 2012 as in 1992, Republican Mitt Romney would have easily been elected president.
This sounds alarming — until you recall the outcome of the 1976 and 1992 presidential races. In 1976, incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford was ousted by Democrat Jimmy Carter. In 1992, incumbent GOP President George H.W. Bush managed to draw only 37 percent of the vote. Cleary, Democrats found a way to win regardless of electoral demographics that today would seem to favor Republicans. There's no reason Republicans can't do the same thing in reverse in future elections.
Also, is it really alarming that Republican appeal is strongest among “just” 72 percent of the country? That seems a pretty good starting point for winning more votes than your competitors. This is not an argument for ignoring the 28 percent. Conservatives should vigorously evangelize among groups not currently inclined to vote for them. But any plan that jettisons a much larger share of the electorate to target a smaller slice is political fool's gold.
And don't forget one reason for the GOP's political failure last year was that many white voters did not turn out to support Romney. Real Clear Politics reporter Sean Trende has estimated the number of white voters declined about 8 million nationally between 2008 and 2012, a change he said was not demographically driven but was “almost entirely attributable to white voters staying home.”
In the same fashion, it's been estimated the white vote in pivotal Ohio declined around 200,000 between 2008 and 2012 — more than President Barack Obama's winning margin in the state. Any serious plan to foster future conservative victories must include re-engaging those right-leaning voters.
Some conservatives worry the youth vote is skewing Democratic. This was also true in 1972 when Democrat George McGovern ran well among young voters while losing in a landslide. By the 1980s, those previously young voters were often supporting Republicans. Those obsessed with the “too old, too white” critique should also recall that the GOP once nominated a white man in his late 60s as president — and then saw him broaden the party's appeal during two terms in office.
Ronald Reagan proved that the messenger matters — and so does the message. As they reassess political strategies, conservatives should keep that political lesson in mind above all others.