Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Wakeup call for the GOP: Will they answer it?

Steven Schier//October 23, 2015

Wakeup call for the GOP: Will they answer it?

Steven Schier//October 23, 2015

Seasoned GOP pollster Whit Ayers has a disturbing message for national and Minnesota Republicans regarding 2016. As he put it in a recent Wall Street Journal column: “Republicans stand a slim chance of winning the presidency in 2016.” Why? Republicans, he argues, must improve their performance among minorities while maintaining or improving their performance with white voters.

Ayers, president of North Star Opinion Research in Alexandria, Virginia, and pollster for GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio of Florida, has written a book arguing the point titled “2016 and Beyond: How Republicans Can Elect a President in the New America.”

One problem for the GOP, Ayers argues, is evident in states like Minnesota. GOP support among white voters is not evenly distributed across the country. Republicans in presidential races win by huge margins among conservative Southern whites. But it’s a very different story in the northern Midwest.

Steven Schier
Steven Schier

Romney in 2012, according to Ayers, won fewer white votes than he needed to carry the potential swing states of Minnesota, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Nationally, he won a record 59 percent of white voters, the biggest proportion of any Republican challenging an incumbent president in the history of exit polls. Yet Romney won less than half of the white vote in other “gettable” states such as Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire and Oregon.

As Ayers puts it, “For Republicans to become competitive again in presidential elections, Republican candidates must perform better among whites, especially in the overwhelmingly white states of the upper Midwest, and much better among minorities.”

This is because the core Republican groups in the electorate — blue collar and older whites, married people and rural residents — are declining as a proportion of the population. Minorities, single women and young people, key Democratic groups, are growing as a proportion of the population.

And here’s some shocking news for Republicans: if America’s demographics were those of 1980, John McCain and Mitt Romney would have won the presidency in 2008 and 2012. Further, if 2016’s demographics were present in 1988, Michal Dukakis would have defeated George Herbert Walker Bush.

Will Minnesota Republicans get the message? Probably not anytime soon. The small group of conservative GOP activists who attended the state’s 2012 precinct caucuses supported former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum over Mitt Romney. Santorum, a strong social conservative and a 2016 presidential candidate, was recently labeled “unelectable” by his former fellow conservative GOP Senate colleague Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

Minnesota remains a far less racially diverse than the nation as a whole. The U.S. Census Bureau puts its 2013 white percentage at 86.2 percent, well above the nation’s 77.7 percent. Yet, as Ayers notes, white support for GOP presidential candidates was too meager to give Romney a chance of carrying the state in 2012.

No Republican has carried Minnesota since Richard Nixon in 1972. A state GOP that boosts Rick Santorum for president has little chance of carrying the state in 2016.

Ayers recommends a dramatically different course for Republicans than Minnesota GOP activists are likely to want to pursue: “It’s more a matter of not nominating a candidate who seems like the same old, same old, but who looks like a fresh start for the new century. It’s bigger than this position or that position. Republicans have got to nominate a transformational candidate because the country has changed more than most of us realized, even in the last 12 years.”

So far, most of the candidates in the GOP presidential field look very much like the “same old, same old” — Rick Santorum, the darling of Minnesota GOP activists, among them. It’s likely that the crowd of candidates will be heavily populated by “same old, same old” white males with two likely exceptions: Latino first-term Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

Cruz has positioned himself on the far right of his party, making both his nomination and election quite problematic. Rubio, in contrast, occupies a center-right position that promises greater electability. His relatively moderate positions on issues like immigration may not endear him to highly ideological activists in states like Minnesota, but may enhance his appeal to growing portions of the electorate: Latinos and younger voters. Rubio himself is only 43 and could present an energetic and youthful contrast to probable Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. No wonder Ayers signed on to work with Rubio.

Other leading candidates for the GOP nomination seem poor fits for Ayer’s prescription. Would the public be willing to elect yet a third Bush family member after the unsuccessful conclusion of his brother’s recent presidency? The bloviating Donald Trump has already alienated many Latinos with his immigration stance. Would Ted Cruz, one of the country’s most polarizing politicians, be able to broaden the GOP’s appeal to the expanding segments of the electorate? How would Chris Christie’s querulous persona fare in a national campaign?

The key question is whether the big money funders and primary and caucus activists of the GOP are willing to listen to Ayers’ warnings regarding 2016. They ignore him at their party’s peril — but they seem well inclined, nationally and in Minnesota, to discount his message.

Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

Top News

See All Top News

Legal calendar

Click here to see upcoming Minnesota events

Expert Testimony

See All Expert Testimony