Romney 2012: It’s the End of the GOP as We Know It

Women and Latinos decisively reject the party, but that isn’t the worst of Republicans’ problems.

Theo Anderson July 3, 2012

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney addresses supporters on a caucus election night event in February in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

In a speech to a group of Repub­li­cans last sum­mer, Karl Rove called Col­orado ground zero” in the 2012 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion and said that as goes Col­orado, so goes the nation.” 

If Rove was right about Col­orado, Mitt Rom­ney is in deep trou­ble. A poll tak­en last month showed Pres­i­dent Oba­ma with a sev­en-point lead in the state. That was down from a 13-point lead in April, pri­mar­i­ly because Mitt Rom­ney had gained some trac­tion among unaf­fil­i­at­ed vot­ers. But Oba­ma led among Lati­nos by 27 points. Among women, he led by 14 points.

The GOP’s prob­lems among those two vot­ing blocs are well known. Repub­li­cans have per­formed poor­ly among women for some time. John Ker­ry beat George W. Bush by sev­en points among female vot­ers in the 2004 elec­tion, and Oba­ma had a 13-point advan­tage among women in 2008. The firestorm dur­ing the GOP pri­ma­ry sea­son over repro­duc­tive rights did noth­ing to help the Repub­li­can brand, and if the pref­er­ences of Col­orado vot­ers are any indi­ca­tion, anoth­er dou­ble-dig­it vic­to­ry for Oba­ma among women is likely.

The GOP is in even big­ger trou­ble among Lati­nos. A recent USA Today/​Gallup poll showed that they favor Oba­ma by a dev­as­tat­ing 41 points (66 per­cent ver­sus 25 per­cent), and there is lit­tle chance that the num­bers will improve much for Rom­ney. Trapped by a base that set­tles for noth­ing less than mil­i­tant­ly anti-immi­grant poli­cies and rhetoric, he’s left with lit­tle to offer Latinos. 

It’s near­ly impos­si­ble to win nation­al elec­tions with those kinds of poll num­bers. One might even be tempt­ed to say that the GOP’s only hope is to sup­press the vote. Women make up 51 per­cent of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion, and Lati­nos make up about 16 percent.

But those vot­ing blocs are bare­ly the begin­ning of the GOP’s problems.

The most star­tling rev­e­la­tion from the June poll in Col­orado is that Rom­ney leads Oba­ma among senior cit­i­zens by 14 points — but los­es among every­one else by 12 points. Vot­ers under 30 pre­fer Oba­ma by a mar­gin of 30 per­cent. This means the elder­ly, par­tic­u­lar­ly old­er white males, are the GOP’s sav­ior. The sole rea­son that Rom­ney has any chance of win­ning this fall is that elder­ly vote in greater num­bers than any oth­er vot­ing bloc. In the 2010 mid-term elec­tion, 61 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion over the age of 64 vot­ed — com­pared with just 37 per­cent of cit­i­zens between 25 and 44, and 21 per­cent of the vot­ing-age pop­u­la­tion under 25. The GOP would be on the edge of obliv­ion if the per­cent­age of young and mid­dle-aged peo­ple who vote were equal to that of seniors.

The fact that the elder­ly are a pil­lar of the GOP’s base pos­es a del­i­cate prob­lem. Seniors are, by def­i­n­i­tion, near­ing the end of their lives. So the most impor­tant pil­lar of party’s base is grad­u­al­ly disappearing. 

New waves of mid­dle-aged peo­ple move into the cat­e­go­ry of the elder­ly all the time, obvi­ous­ly. But the key ques­tion for the GOP is whether the elder­ly will vote so reli­ably Repub­li­can a few years down the road. There’s good rea­son to doubt it — or, at least, there’s rea­son to doubt whether they will con­tin­ue to do so if the par­ty doesn’t fun­da­men­tal­ly reform itself.

For sev­er­al decades the GOP has been a strange mar­riage of two opposed polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tions: lib­er­tar­i­an­ism and author­i­tar­i­an­ism. The lib­er­tar­i­an ele­ment believes in small gov­ern­ment, low tax­es, and as lit­tle gov­ern­ment inter­fer­ence as pos­si­ble in cit­i­zens’ pri­vate lives and in the work­ings of the econ­o­my. The author­i­tar­i­an ele­ment believes in big gov­ern­ment in cer­tain sec­tors (espe­cial­ly the mil­i­tary and nation­al-secu­ri­ty spheres), and it favors the use of government’s pow­er to pro­mote pro-moral” behavior.

The two ori­en­ta­tions share a hatred of gov­ern­ment inter­ven­tion in the eco­nom­ic realm, a hatred that has been strong enough to keep the GOP’s mar­riage of lib­er­tar­i­ans and author­i­tar­i­ans togeth­er. Lib­er­tar­i­ans focus on what they like about Repub­li­cans’ free mar­ket” eco­nom­ics. Author­i­tar­i­ans focus on the GOP’s God and coun­try” ortho­doxy and ignore the lib­er­tar­i­an element’s con­cern with civ­il lib­er­ties and its skep­ti­cism toward mil­i­tary adventures.

The GOP’s divid­ed heart accounts for the party’s awful record of bal­loon­ing the nation­al debt. Its base encour­ages Repub­li­cans to simul­ta­ne­ous­ly love and hate gov­ern­ment. So GOP lead­ers pro­mote and pass huge and cost­ly new ini­tia­tives (the Iraq war, Medicare Part D) while aggres­sive­ly cut­ting tax­es and decry­ing the evils of big government.”

The great dilem­ma for the GOP is that there’s no future in the kind of social con­ser­vatism that now appeals strong­ly to the elder­ly. The Silent gen­er­a­tion that pre­ced­ed Baby Boomers is far more like­ly than younger gen­er­a­tions to favor restric­tions on civ­il lib­er­ties and to oppose gay rights and drug legal­iza­tion. They’re also more like­ly to be reli­gious and have a pos­i­tive view of religion’s role in our nation­al life. Accord­ing to a Pew Research Cen­ter study released last year, 78 per­cent of peo­ple in the Silent gen­er­a­tion believe that reli­gion is key to the nation’s suc­cess.” Just 46 per­cent of the Mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion (i.e., young peo­ple) agree with that idea.

It may be true that peo­ple grow more con­ser­v­a­tive and more reli­gious with age, but the tide of opin­ion is mov­ing in an irre­versible direc­tion on gay rights and drug legal­iza­tion. Author­i­tar­i­ans are los­ing those bat­tles. And the insti­tu­tion­al reli­gion that has been the heart of the reli­gious right — and thus of the GOP’s author­i­tar­i­an wing — is declin­ing in rel­e­vance among Millennials.

As Sean Trende, of Real Clear Pol­i­tics, has point­ed out, polit­i­cal par­ties are con­tin­u­al­ly in the process of shift­ing and reform­ing and putting togeth­er new coali­tions, and the GOP will sure­ly sur­vive its immi­nent cri­sis in some fash­ion. But its rein­vent­ed form is like­ly to be more heav­i­ly lib­er­tar­i­an than author­i­tar­i­an, which means that we can expect a redou­bling of the party’s anti-tax and aus­ter­i­ty obses­sions in com­ing years. Repub­li­cans might also devel­op some inter­est in defend­ing civ­il lib­er­ties, dif­fi­cult as that is to imagine.

Mean­while, the GOP’s steep dis­ad­van­tage among young peo­ple, women, African-Amer­i­cans, and Lati­nos gives the par­ty lit­tle mar­gin for error. It’s so heav­i­ly reliant on white, elder­ly vot­ers that any fac­tor that depress­es their turnout, or increas­es the turnout of oth­er vot­ing blocs, threat­ens to give the elec­tion to the Democ­rats. In Col­orado this fall, for exam­ple, there will be an ini­tia­tive on the bal­lot ask­ing whether the state should legal­ize the pos­ses­sion of small amounts of mar­i­jua­na. Young peo­ple are expect­ed to turn out in high­er-than-usu­al num­bers to vote in favor. It’s yet anoth­er bad omen for Rom­ney in Colorado.

Asked about the pot ini­tia­tive recent­ly, Rom­ney nat­u­ral­ly dodged the ques­tion. He is the per­fect embod­i­ment of the Repub­li­can Party’s divid­ed heart. He’s deeply reli­gious, appar­ent­ly, but can’t or won’t say how his reli­gion has shaped his life and pol­i­tics. He promis­es to increase mil­i­tary spend­ing and make war more aggres­sive­ly — while cut­ting tax­es and reduc­ing the debt. He believes in free­dom, except when it applies to peo­ple and prac­tices he dislikes.

Lib­er­tar­i­an? Author­i­tar­i­an? Oppor­tunis­tic? Yes, he’s all that and more. 

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH