It’s been a well-established conceit of U.S. politics that the Republican Party is a bastion of white men while Democrats are the party of diversity. Precisely for that reason, the most interesting aspect of the GOP’s victories in 2014 was its candidates’ improved performance with ethnic minorities.
In 2002, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira published “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” in which they cogently argued that “sometime in this decade” a new coalition of ethnic minorities, single women and college-educated professionals would emerge as a dominant electoral force on behalf of the Democratic Party. Each of these left-leaning groups was destined to grow in size, Judis and Teixera observed, suggesting that Democrats would enjoy a long-term structural advantage in future elections.
“While the ranks of white working-class voters will not grow over the next decade,” they wrote, “the numbers of professionals, working, single and highly educated women and minorities will swell. They are products of a new postindustrial capitalism, rooted in diversity and social equality and emphasizing the production of ideas and services rather than goods.”
The Judis-Teixeira thesis seemed to have been vindicated by the victories of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, with 2012 particularly notable because a poor economy should have made it easier for Obama’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.
But the 2014 elections suggest that Republicans may be making inroads with these communities — especially with ethnic minorities — without diluting their policy message. If that’s true, the Obama coalition may erode when he leaves office. It’s this fear that drove the president last week to grant partial reprieves to nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants who hail predominantly from Latin America and Asia.
It’s undeniable that, in recent years, the U.S. electorate has been whiter in midterm elections, such as 2010 and 2014, relative to presidential elections, such as 2008 and 2012. But not by much: Whites represented 75 percent of the electorate in 2014 and 74 percent in 2008. In the intervening six years, Republicans increased their performance among blacks by 6 percentage points (from 4 percent to 10 percent), among Hispanics by 5 points (from 31 percent to 36 percent) and among Asians by 15 points (from 35 percent to 50 percent).
You could explain these differences in a number of ways. Perhaps Obama’s name at the top of the ticket drove minorities in his direction. Younger voters tend to vote Democratic, and more young voters have turned out in presidential years. But the effort by Republicans to reach out to minorities on their own terms can’t be dismissed.
After the 2012 rout, the Republican National Committee published an “autopsy” detailing the GOP’s failure with minority voters. “The pervasive mentality of writing off blocks of states or demographic votes for the Republican Party must be completely forgotten,” the authors wrote, and the RNC committed to a full-time minority engagement operation.
The GOP rebound with Asians is particularly striking. In 2012, Asians voted for Obama over Romney by a greater margin (47 points) than Hispanics did (44 points). In 2014, Republicans won among Asians, 50 percent to 49 percent, something they had not done since 1996.
A 24-point swing in the Asian vote does not happen by accident. Republicans see Asian-Americans as natural conservatives whose family orientation and entrepreneurial tendencies line up with their own.
“Direct personal engagement makes all the difference in the world,” says Shawn Steel, a former chairman of the Republican Party in California, where Asians represent 11 percent of the electorate, compared with 3 percent nationally. “Asian Americans … are the easiest [demographic] to move toward Republican quality candidates.”
In Virginia, underdog Republican candidates such as Ed Gillespie and Barbara Comstock held events in Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Indian and Filipino communities. Comstock won her House race, and Gillespie far exceeded expectations in a close loss to incumbent Sen. Mark Warner.
Why has it taken so long for Republicans to engage in direct voter outreach to Asians and other minority groups? Two reasons predominate. First, ethnic minorities, like most immigrants throughout history, are concentrated in urban areas, which tend to be Democratic strongholds, leaving few Republican politicians catering to minorities’ needs at the local level.
Second, many conservative intellectuals believe they are resisting identity politics by refusing to tailor messages to ethnic minorities. But what conservatives call identity politics, operatives call retail politics. In 2004, Republican strategist Karl Rove saw that gun-owning Republicans were the best people to reach out to gun-owning independents. Minority outreach is no different.
The great American tradition, conservatives reason, is for immigrants to assimilate into the broader American culture. What conservatives have long missed is that Asian and Hispanic immigrants are assimilating into the broader American culture, just as German and Italian and Irish immigrants did in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Judis and Teixeira were not the first analysts to argue that their side would achieve enduring majority status. The title of their book was adapted from one by Kevin Phillips, “The Emerging Republican Majority.” Philips, a strategist for President Richard Nixon, predicted that white Democrats would turn the then-solidly Democratic South into Republican territory. Democrats responded by turning the North blue. It’s Republicans’ turn to once again turn the tables.