Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Incredible Shrinking Republican Base

The survey, conducted by David Hill, (PDF) who operates the Houston-based Republican Hill Research firm, raises questions about whether the Republican Party might be in trouble in Texas after a decade of political dominance. Hill's survey states, in no uncertain terms, that for GOP candidates to succeed in Texas they must look beyond the party's base voters and wrap up 80 percent of independent voters that he calls the Critical Middle. Mr. Hill concludes that the party needs to move away from a hard-line focus on social conservatism and refocus on a “clear and consistent” fiscal conservatism pocketbook issues that were at the forefront of voter concerns in this year’s election – health care, jobs creation, the banking system and the economy in general and energy.

Hill warns in no uncertain terms that for Texas GOP candidates to succeed they must put primary focus on core conservative pocketbook issues to attract 80% of the "Critical Middle" independents to party candidates. Mr. Hill concludes, “This isn’t ‘optional’ - anything less means Republicans lose.”

GOP candidates need "Critical Middle" independents because well before election day 2008, a partisan shift was under way around the U.S. For more than three years starting in 2005, there has been a reduction in the number of voters who register with the Republican Party and a rise among voters who affiliate with Democrats and, almost as often, with no party at all.

In other words the demographic that current defines most of the Republican base is shrinking. Some areas of Texas, such as Collin County, lags this partisan shift trend, but Mr. Hill's research shows that Texas is as susceptible to this partisan shift as was Colorado, which turned into a blue state this election year.

As America, and many areas of Texas, becomes more diverse, the percentage of the population that makes up the Republican base has nosedived. (Source: NES Cumulative File)

Where married white Christians made up nearly 80% of the adult U.S. population in the 1950s, married white Christians now make up less than half of all voters in the United States and less than one fifth of voters under the age of 30. The Census Bureau issued a press release in the summer of 2008 that projects that by 2042, the United States will no longer be a White majority nation.

Meanwhile, the demographics of the GOP have gone in the opposite direction. (Source: NES Cumulative File)

In the 1950s, married white Christians made up just over 40% of the Republican Party -- today they make up about 90% of the party with the majority now more narrowly defining themselves as Social Conservative Christians.

Between the 1970s and the first decade of the 21st century, Republican identification among conservative married white Christians increased by 26 points, going from 64 percent to 90 percent.

During the same time period, Republican identification among moderate married white Christians increased by only five points, going from 38 percent to 43 percent and Republican identification among liberal married white Christians actually declined by 10 points, falling from 23 percent to 13 percent. Implicit in Mr. Hill's research findings is the fact that there are no more untapped Conservative married white Christians to attract into the party. As Mr. Hill suggests, the GOP must increase its support among "Critical Middle" moderate-to-liberal married white Christians who are motivated by concerns other than the standard conservative "family values" hot-button issues.

Republicans need to come to terms with the fact that shifting demographics over the last four years has caused the GOP to lose control of every level of government across the U.S.
  • After the 2004 election Republicans had a 232-202 majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. After the 2008 election Democrats have a 257-178 lead. In the Senate, Republicans had a 55-45 majority after the 2004 election, which flipped to Democratic advantage of 58-42 (or maybe 59-41) after the 2008 election.
  • After the 2004 election, Republicans held 28 governorships compared with 22 for the Democrats. After the 2008 election, Democrats now hold 29 governorships compared with just 21 for the Republicans.
  • After the 2004 election, Republicans controlled the state legislature in 20 states compared with 19 Democratic-controlled states. Now, Democrats control the state legislatures of 27 states, with the Republicans controlling only 14 states.
  • And there are now over 800 more Democratic state legislators than Republicans in the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures Web site. Just four years ago, Democrats had a mere 10-seat edge out of more than 7,000 nationwide.
GOP dominance in the 2008 presidential election diminished to a strip of red states, primarily across the southern bible belt, as shown by this MyDD map, distorted to show electoral votes and thus population.
Hill's suggestion that the GOP should move away from a hard-line focus on social conservatism and refocus on core fiscal conservatism pocketbook issues in Texas will likely be a hard sell. Religious conservatives, which dominates the Texas GOP, become defensive at any suggestion that they or their Social Conservative "family values" agenda has had anything to do with the GOP's erosion. Indeed, religious conservatives are saying the Republican Party must refocus on a social conservatism agenda for the 2010 and 2012 elections. Both camps of conservatives seem to be saying the party is losing because it is not conservative enough, but each point to their own brand of conservatism.

The immediate future will be a bloody brawl for the soul and direction of the GOP. Will the GOP leadership define "return to core conservative beliefs" as a refocus to be a small government party of tax-cutting free-market deregulators at a time of an enormous government deficits, massive bailouts and economic crisis brought on in part by these same policies? Or, will it define "return to core religious conservative beliefs" as a refocus on a social conservatism agenda with Sarah Palin at the head of the party.

White evangelical Protestants are the most conservative Republicans: 79% describe their political views as conservative, compared with 17% who say they are moderate and just 2% who call themselves liberal. Republican white mainline Protestants and white non-Hispanic Catholics also are largely conservative (63% and 66%, respectively), but about three-in-ten in each group say their views are moderate (31% among white mainline Protestants and 30% among white Catholics).

Just consider these numbers from a post 2008 election WSJ/NBC poll: among Republicans only, the most popular person tested in the poll is the dues-paid-in-full member of the Evangelical right Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin with a whopping 73%-13% favorable-unfavorable rating. On the other hand conservative columnist Kathleen Parker, who received piles of hate mail during the Presidential campaign for questioning Sarah Palin's credentials, wrote a column for the Washington Post, entitled, "Giving Up on God," makes a sustained argument that the GOP's courting of the religious vote above all has led the party dangerously astray. In that WSJ/NBC poll Palin's polling score among all groups was a net negative approval-disapproval of 35%-45% -- which means she fares poorly among both Democrats and Independents.

Texas Democrats are starting to look toward toward future campaigns and some Democrats have settled on a rallying cry, "Texas is next."

It sounds improbable for the Republican bastion that produced President Bush and served as an early laboratory for Karl Rove's hard-nosed tactics. But Texas is one of several reliably red states that are now in Democrats' sights as party strategists analyze 2008 election results that they believe show the contours of a new progressive movement that could grow and prove long-lasting.

A multi-ethnic bloc of Latinos, blacks, young people and suburban whites helped to broaden the party's reach in 2008. That new formulation of voters was evident in state exit polls and county-level election results (see map) showing that Democrats scored gains from a voting base that is growing progressively less white-married-christian than the population that helped forge Republican advantages in past elections.

Both Republican and Democratic strategists believe the large and growing Latino population in Texas remains untapped, along with a large black electorate, which could make Texas competitive with a major investment of time and money from an Obama-led Democratic Party.

The map at left shows the U.S. Congressional districts carried by Democratic candidates in the 2008 election. This shows that Democrats can win in large sections of the state.

Cuauhtemoc "Temo" Figueroa, Obama's top Latino outreach official, has commented that Texas could be taken seriously as a presidential battleground if Democrats could win statewide races there in 2010. "I don't know if it's four years or eight years off, but down the road, Texas will be a presidential battleground," Figueroa said.

Some Republican strategists like Mr. Hill warn that their party faces demographic challenges with the Latino vote growing and moving toward Democrats. Most Texas Republicans dismiss the warning that the GOP needs to worry about a long-term GOP deficit in the state. After all, Obama carried only 28 of the 254 Texas counties, only narrowly winning critical Harris county, and the McCain/Palin ticket easily carry critical Terrant, Denton and Collin counties.

County By County Presidential Voting Results

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