A Daunting Demographic Challenge for the GOP in 2016

A Republican nominee who matches George W. Bush’s winning hand from 2004 would lose this time around.

GOPRepublicans stand a slim chance of winning the presidency in 2016—unless they nominate a transformational candidate who can dramatically broaden the GOP’s appeal. That assertion may seem incongruous in light of stunning Republican triumphs in the past two midterm elections. But success in 2014 no more indicates the outcome of the 2016 presidential election than victory in 2010 foretold the presidential winner in 2012.

The continuing problem for the Republican Party is the country’s changing demographics. GOP congressional candidates won 60% of white voters in 2010 and 2014, producing landslide victories. The calculation works differently in presidential elections, however, when turnout is higher, particularly among minorities. In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won 59% of white voters, the highest percentage of any Republican challenging an incumbent president in the history of exit polling. He won every significant white subgroup—men and women; young and old; Protestants and Catholics—often by overwhelming margins. Yet Mr. Romney still lost the election by five million votes.

Barack Obama won because he achieved breathtaking majorities among every other racial group. The president won 93% of African-Americans and more than 70% of Hispanics and Asians. As a result, the first African-American president won re-election with only four out of 10 white voters.

Unfortunately for Republicans, the math is only going to get worse. Groups that form the core of GOP support—older whites, blue-collar whites, married people and rural residents—are declining as a proportion of the electorate. Groups that lean Democratic—minorities, young people and single women—are growing.

The challenge is obvious: Republicans can’t win a presidential election by trying to grab a larger piece of a shrinking pie. That helps explain why Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. If America’s demographics still looked the way they did in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was voted into office, John McCain and Mitt Romney would have won the White House.

These demographic trends show no sign of abating. Whites accounted for 72% of the national electorate in 2012, down from 83% in 1992 and 88% in 1976. If this pattern continues—with an average decline since 1996 of 2.75 percentage points each presidential election—the 2016 electorate will be about 69% white and 31% nonwhite.

In this new landscape, Democrats have an easier time cobbling together a coalition. In 2012, Mr. Obama won 39% of the white vote and 82% of the nonwhite vote on the way to a 51.1% re-election victory. If the 2016 Democratic nominee can hold the same share of the white vote, he or she could win with only 75% of nonwhites.

Hillary Clinton has proven to be a more attractive candidate than Mr. Obama among whites in culturally conservative regions of the country. Assuming she wins the nomination, if she can push her support among whites up to 42%, she will need only 68% of the nonwhite vote to win the presidency. That is far lower than even the 73% of nonwhites John Kerry carried in 2004.

Republicans, on the other hand, must find a way to appeal to more nonwhite voters. If the GOP nominee in 2016 wins the same share of the white vote that Mr. Romney did—59%—then he or she will need 30% of nonwhites to be elected. That is far greater than the 17% of the nonwhite vote that Mr. Romney won in 2012, or the 19% John McCain won in 2008, or the 26% George W. Bush won in 2004.

Looked at another way, if the Republican nominee only manages to hold Mr. Romney’s 17% among nonwhites, then he or she will need 65% of whites to win. Only one Republican has reached that mark in the past half century: Ronald Reagan in his 49-state landslide sweep in 1984. Even George W. Bush’s comfortable re-election in 2004 with 58% of whites and 26% of nonwhites would be a losing hand in 2016.

So how can Republicans possibly compete? By nominating a candidate who can speak to minorities, especially Hispanics, and offer a vivid and compelling vision of expanded economic opportunity at home and a stronger America abroad.

Republicans can not only survive but thrive in this environment. Their values of individual liberty, free enterprise, limited government and opportunity for all know no ethnic boundaries. As successive waves of immigrants have done before them, Hispanic and other nonwhite Americans respond to the incentives and opportunities offered by this amazing land. Republican candidates can win presidential elections with an inclusive message, a welcoming tone and an aggressive effort to appeal to the new America that is already here.

Mr. Ayres is president of North Star Opinion Research, a GOP polling firm in Alexandria, Va. This op-ed is excerpted from his book “2016 and Beyond: How Republicans Can Elect a President in the New America” (Resurgent Republic Press, 2015).

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