As Executive Secretary of the Chicago Young Republicans, you might be surprised to read that I’m not one for much debate when hosting events. I’d rather just briefly discuss any issues or policies we agree on, then move on to sports or movies over some beers.
But as we get closer to the 2016 presidential primaries, the topic over who should be “the face” of the Republican Party inevitably comes up.
Even then, I don’t get emotional about it. I’ll give my two cents and move on.
But there are some on the hard right who vehemently make the case to me that the reason why Republicans haven’t won the White House in recent years is because the party “never nominates a candidate who’s conservative enough.” Indeed, as the argument always goes, there are allegedly “millions of conservatives who stay home” every general election, just waiting for the “ultimate conservative candidate” to draw them out in droves come November.
After many times of exhaustively trying to get these hardliners to provide their math on these claims, I finally decided to do the research myself.
As you may have read elsewhere, historically it’s almost always been the opposite – that is, the lower the voter turnout, the better the Republican Party actually does.
It makes sense when you think about it. Democratic Party promises are inherently populist in nature. “Free healthcare,” “free education,” “free housing” and so on will always find popularity in many circles (though one of life’s greatest contradictions is how many people view politicians as ‘crooks and liars,’ yet want to believe them when they’re promising something ‘free’). But as those of us who have any understanding of how economics work, there truly is no such thing as a “free” lunch. The sheer amount of taxes that would need to be raised to provide for any of these deceptive promises – including tax hikes on the middle class – would be crippling, but I digress.
When it comes to presidential elections since the 1960s, every time voter turnout has reached 60% or higher, the Democratic candidate has won five out of seven times (the exceptions being Richard Nixon in 1968 and George W. Bush in 2004). Conversely, every time voter turnout has fallen below 60%, the Republican candidate has won five out of seven times (the exceptions being Bill Clinton in 1996 and Barack Obama in 2012).
Even during the Ronald Reagan years – whom the hard right often use as the model for their “ultimate conservative candidate” theory – voter turnout was below 60% both times: 55% in 1980 and 57% in 1984.
In midterm election years, the results are even more pronounced. For the last 40 years, midterm election turnout has hovered around 40% and has been measurably lower than presidential election turnout for at least the last 175 years. In those years, Republicans have been very successful in Senate, House, gubernatorial and state legislature races across the country – with the 2006 midterms being the sole exception.
Case in point, the results of the most recent midterm elections last year has now made the Republican Party the strongest it’s ever been since the 1920s.
Coincidentally, 2014 also saw the lowest voter turnout in 72 years at 36.3%.
Speaking of the 1920s, which was the last time the GOP had this much power in both Washington, D.C. and the states, 1920 and 1924 marked the only two presidential election years in the 20th century when voter turnout sank below 50%, resulting in Republicans Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge being elected president, respectively.
So what does this tell us?
For one thing, I’m still having difficulty believing that the GOP’s recent White House struggles are due to “millions of conservatives” allegedly staying home – particularly since primary voter turnout in recent cycles, where staunch conservatives have the opportunity to cast their votes for the “ultimate conservative candidate,” has hit record lows consistently averaging below 20%. (Source: Bipartisan Policy Library, http://bipartisanpolicy.org/library/)
Furthermore, all the available evidence actually suggests the exact opposite: that conservatives are having record voter turnout in presidential elections. Fully 35% of the 2012 electorate self-identified as conservative, a record high since exit polls began asking voters about their political leanings in 1976 and measurably higher since the 29% registered in 2000. In case you’re wondering, yes, that even outperformed Reagan’s conservative draws in 1980 and 1984 at 28% and 33%, respectively. (Source: Roper Center, http://www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/)
In fact, while presidential voter turnout decreased from 63% in 2008 to 59% in 2012, Mitt Romney earned one million more votes and a greater share of the popular vote than John McCain (47% vs. 45%), proving 2012’s lower voter turnout was almost exclusively from Obama supporters, not conservatives. Even if Romney had tied George W. Bush’s 2004 popular vote total (which was only one million more), it still would’ve fallen about four million voters short of Obama’s 2012 popular vote total. (Source: ProCon.org, http://2012election.procon.org/).
Speaking of Bush, it should be noted that the only popular vote a Republican presidential candidate has won since 1988 was in 2004, when Bush noticeably earned almost half (44%) the Latino vote – unheard of for a GOP candidate. The next strongest showing among Latinos was in 1984 when Reagan earned about a third of their vote (34%), but that was when Latinos were only 3% of the American electorate.
Since the 1980s, the non-white vote has more than doubled from 13% of the electorate to 28% today, and that sizeable portion of voters is almost exclusively voting for Democratic candidates over the last decade. The 2012 election year marked the first time in U.S. history that black voter turnout surpassed white voter turnout, (Source: Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2013/04/29/black-turnout-was-higher-than-white-turnout-in-2012-and-2008/), a group that consistently breaks Democratic 9 to 1. The Brookings Institution definitively proved (Source: Brookings Institute, http://www.brookings.edu) that 2012 also marked the first time where the non-white vote determined who won the presidential election.
Consider the fact that if Romney had the same demographic electorate of the 1980s as Reagan and George H. W. Bush did when whites made up 87% of all voters vs. 72% today, he would’ve soundly defeated Obama in 2012 since he won 59% of white voters – outperforming even Reagan’s 1980 share of white voters (56%).
Thus, according to the math, the GOP’s White House struggles have less to do with “millions of unmotivated conservatives staying home” (of which all the evidence demonstrably contradicts) and more to do with building inroads and maintaining relationships with non-white voters – particularly the growing Latino population.
Indeed, something George W. Bush understood coming from a state like Texas, and his brother Jeb understood coming from a state like Florida for that matter, is the importance of reaching out to the Latino communities within their states to win general elections.
Reagan also understood that elections are won by addition, not subtraction. He practiced the politics of inclusion, not exclusion. He took his message of freedom, individual choice and less government to anyone and any group who would listen. He never tried to exclude anyone from his coalition.
Also notice that strategy has nothing to do with compromising or “giving up” on any principles or positions, but everything to do with simple messaging and outreach.
Historically, millions of voters staying home has routinely helped Republican candidates, not hurt them. The evidence, however, shows self-identified conservatives now make up a record high portion of the electorate, suggesting the problem isn’t lack of hardline conservative voter turnout, but the GOP simply needing to go to new neighborhoods and communities to carry their message and find enough new voters to form a winning coalition within presidential elections.
By: John Giokaris