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More on the Republican Re-boot: A Rejoinder

- April 1, 2013

Eric Schickler writes:

I wanted to offer a quick reply to John’s post suggesting that Republicans’ troubles do not necessarily run so deep at the moment – and thus do not require a serious reexamination of the party’s positioning.  I agree with John that the GOP could certainly win the next presidential election – and could even gain unified control of government, if conditions break right for the party.  There is no doubt that pundits are too quick to over-interpret the meaning of each election’s results – finding evidence of a Republican realignment in 2010 or a Democratic permanent majority in 2012.

But while particular election results should be interpreted with caution, the most important long-term factor shaping each party’s electoral fortunes in the distribution of partisanship in the electorate.  And trends in partisanship since 2004 are deeply troubling for the GOP.   The graph below from PEW tells much of the story: notice that Democrats – in the New Deal era – held a substantial advantage in party ID.  It narrowed as the GOP captured the south.  From the late 1980s through 2004, Democrats’ were barely ahead in partisanship nationally.  But in recent years, Democrats have regained a clear advantage: 8 points according to Pew in 2012, or 9 points based on the pollster.com average in March 2013.

Even more worrisome for the GOP are trends among young voters, who have moved decisively into the Democratic column.  A wealth of work in political socialization shows that identities formed at 18-30 generally are difficult to dislodge.  Having voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, this generation of voters could become the most Democratic generation since those coming of political age during the New Deal.  Even worse for the GOP, the most Republican cohort of voters is also the oldest – meaning that generational replacement will only enhance Democrats’ edge unless Republicans find a way to reach young voters.  This graph from Pew demonstrates both the Democrats’ edge with young voters and the pro-GOP leanings of the oldest generation:

So what are Republicans to do in response?  John is right that political observers tend to overestimate the importance of particular policy issues and candidates in affecting each election’s outcome.  But these same observers also tend to make the mistake of underestimating the importance of enduring voter allegiances and party images in shaping the long-term political terrain.  In this case, the challenge for Republicans is perhaps more difficult than just changing position on a handful of issues: it is to foster an identity that young voters find consistent with their own self-image.  Given the demographics of this next generation of voters – including the growing share made up of Latinos – this may well require a substantial “reboot” of the GOP’s approach.

A couple thoughts in response to this.  One is that Republicans had no problem winning presidential elections even when the Democratic advantage in party identification was much larger than now (with the caveat that this advantage was due at least in part to conservative Southern Democrats, who were more likely to defect and vote Republican in presidential elections).  An advantage in party identification seems to provide at best a small bulwark against the effects of national forces and political and economic fundamentals.

A second thought concerns what future generations of partisans will look like.  I absolutely agree that this generation of young people is probably mostly lost to the GOP.  (Lynn Vavreck and I make this argument in an as-yet-unpublished chapter in The Gamble as well, based on the same research that Eric cites.)  But what about future generations?  The partisan coloration of each generation reflects the political and economic fundamentals when it came of age: if the incumbent party is presiding over peace and prosperity, the generation that comes of age at that moment will tilt toward that party.  Here’s another nice graph from Pew that illustrates this:

11-3-11 #17

People who came of age in when times were bad under a Democrat (later Truman years, LBJ years, Carter) or when times were good under a Republican (Reagan) tended to tilt Republican.  This could happen again, depending on events.

Interestingly, as Harry Enten has noted, some polling of high school students by political scientist Jen Lawless already suggests that they may be less liberal and Democratic than young adults today — as we might expect given that they are coming of age not under Bush but under Obama, and the fundamentals under Obama haven’t been terrible but haven’t been great either.   Of course, we want to be cautious extrapolating from the views of high school students to their views as young adults.  But we should also be cautious extrapolating the views of today’s young adults to the generations that come after them.

The point is, cohort replacement may not give Democrats a sizable enough long-term advantage to insulate the party from the ups-and-downs of the business cycle and other events.  And that would continue to produce the fairly regular oscillation of party power that has characterized American politics for decades if not longer.