How Republicans Can Win the Future

The GOP needs its own ‘ethnography project.’

By + More
President Barack Obama and former presidential nominee Mitt Romney talk following their lunch at the White House.

To paraphrase Homer Simpson, Lauren Howie was the cause of and possibly solution to Republicans' struggle to build a coalition of voters that can again win the White House.

Howie, a 27-year-old African-American from Cleveland, was not thrilled with President Obama's performance in his first term, according to an analysis of the election released this week by the Associated Press. She thought he hadn't delivered on promises to reduce college debt, promote women's rights and address climate change.

And she wouldn't have voted for him except for one thing: She thought even less of his opponent, Mitt Romney. "I got the feeling Mitt Romney couldn't care less about me and my fellow African-Americans," said Howie, an administrative assistant at Case Western Reserve University's medical school who is paying off college debt.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Howie said she saw some Romney comments as insensitive to the needs of the poor. "A white Mormon swimming in money with offshore accounts buying up companies and laying off their employees just doesn't quite fit my idea of a president," she said. "Bottom line, Romney was not someone I was willing to trust with my future."

The problem, of course, is it is not reasonable to think Republicans will run a candidate any time soon who will satisfy Howie's wishes for more action on climate change, women's rights and college debt. But the good news for Republicans is that Howie and many in her generation truly have moved past race as a deciding factor. If Romney had come closer on policy or if she had perceived him to better understand her hopes and needs, she might have considered voting for him.

As it was, she joined 96 percent of her fellow African-American women in voting for President Obama. Romney won among married women. If African-American women had not voted at all, he likely would've won among all women.

So there is something to the standard analysis – that black voters, whose turnout rivaled and even may have surpassed that of whites in the 2012 election – tilted the field for Obama and that Romney simply never found a way to appeal to those of lesser means. And this is good news.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

That said, Republicans can't win the presidency with white voters alone anymore. They represent more than two-thirds of the electorate now and will likely represent at least 64 percent in the 2028 election. But others – particularly African-Americans – are now voting in similar percentages as whites. And in some parts of America, such as Pennsylvania and Ohio and other battleground states, that makes all the difference.

But they also need not make gratuitous racial appeals or rush through, say, immigration legislation to turn the tide. Nate Silver, The New York Times' numbers-cruncher extraordinaire, says Romney wouldn't have won even if he'd gotten 70 percent of the Latino vote in 2012.

They need merely to demonstrate they understand and care about the needs of average Americans, who are not at all convinced the current party in power has a lock on the answers. They should rethink their approach to the issues Howie raised and point out where interests coincide.

Republicans must make the point their policies empower women, give them a chance to grow economically; Democrats treat them as helpless wards of the state. On climate policy, the United States leads the world in emissions reduction thanks to things Republicans favor, such as natural gas, and not Democratic policies, such as promotion of alternative energy. Where is the candidate who can point out these things?

[See pictures of Obama behind the scenes.]

Americans are nervous about the future, columnist Byron York says. They've seen their standard of living decline in recent decades. They actually looked to Romney and considered him seriously. But … "When Romney did not address their concerns, they either voted for Obama or didn't vote at all. If the next Republican candidate can address their concerns effectively, he will win. And amazingly enough, he'll win a lot more Hispanic votes in the process."

York is on to something. The key is finding candidates who can explain their policies in terms that make Americans believe they care as Obama did in 2012 with his "ethnography project." Doing this for the Latino vote and that for African-American vote and the other for the women's or under-40 vote sends the signal it's still about pandering and not serious problem solving.

The real danger is Republicans will recover by 2014, make gains in the midterms, then assume, as they did in 2010, that things will take care of themselves in the presidential election. It's a different electorate. Winning the White House is not about appealing to groups per say. It's about articulating a message that captures the imagination of broad sections of Americans.

Yes, there are fewer whites … and more are liberal than ever before. But the good news is voter behavior is going to be predicted by race less and less frequently as time goes on. If Republicans want to be part of that conversation, they need to start thinking along those lines now.

  • Read Mary Kate Cary: Big Government Is Not the Answer
  • Read Susan Milligan: Google's Geeky Glass Is Technology at Its Laziest
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad