The White Party
By THOMAS B. EDSALL
In the wake of the 2008 election, conservative Republican strategists like Karl Rove, Grover Norquist and William Kristol warned that their party faced even worse defeats if it continued in its anti-immigrant posturing.
“An anti-Hispanic attitude is suicidal,” Rove wrote. The decision to “demagogue” the immigration issue was a “totally self-inflicted wound by House Republicans,” Kristol declared. Beating up on immigrants,” Grover Norquist said, “loses you votes.”
Their advice was rejected. Republicans running for the House and the Senate defiantly calculated that they could win in 2010 with a surge of white voters, affirming the Republican role as the default party of white America. Initially, this approach appeared quixotic. A demographic tidal wave of African-American and Hispanic voters threatened to wash the Republicans out to sea.
But many Republican candidates — incumbents and challengers — did not budge. They not only held firm in their adamant opposition to immigration reform (despite its crucial importance to many Hispanic voters),
"Crucial" according to various self-proclaimed Hispanic ethnic leaders who, while they may not be very well known to Hispanic voters, always promptly return Thomas B. Edsall's request for a quote validating whatever Thomas B. Edsall wants them to say.
but they also became even more hard-nosed. Former apostates on the issue, like Senator John McCain of Arizona, who had proudly backed immigration reform in 2004 and 2005, saw the light — in other words, read poll data on Republican voters — and moved to the right.
To use just one particularly egregious example, Senator David Vitter — who admitted that he had “let down and disappointed” family, friends and supporters but refused to answer questions about his connections to prostitutes — used an outspoken anti-immigration ad to win re-election easily in Louisiana.
It's almost as if Rove, Norquist, and Kristol could be wrong!
The decision to carry the banner for conservative white America paid off in the midterm elections — helped enormously, of course, by a dismal economy under a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress, as well as conservative hostility to the administration’s health care program and economic stimulus legislation.
In 2010, the Republican white strategy was boosted by the fact that minority turnout traditionally drops in non-presidential years, perhaps especially so without Obama on the ballot. But the scope of success went far beyond expectations.
The percentage of non-Hispanic whites voting for Republican House candidates in 2010, 62 percent, set a record for off-year contests, beating even the 1994 Republican rout when Republicans got 58 percent of the white vote. In presidential elections, you have to go back to the landslide Republican victories of 1972 (Richard Nixon versus George McGovern) and 1984 (Ronald Reagan versus Walter Mondale) to get white Republican margins similar to those of 2010. McGovern and Mondale carried just one state each, Massachusetts and Minnesota respectively.
Another way of looking at it is this: fully 88.8 percent of all ballots cast in 2010 for House Republicans were cast by whites, compared to 63.9 percent for Democrats.
The white share of Republican votes is actually slightly lower than in the past. The Big Change is that it's the Democrats that are slowly turning into the Nonwhite Party.
The degree to which the Republican Party has become a white party is also reflected in the composition of primary voters. For example, on March 4, 2008, in Ohio — where non-Hispanic whites are 81.1 percent of the population, blacks 12.2 percent, and Hispanics 3.1 percent — the Republican primary turnout was 97 percent white. Hispanics were 2 percent and the black turnout was so low it was zero percent, statistically speaking. One percent was described as “other.”
In the Jan. 19, 2008, South Carolina primary, 96 percent of the Republican turnout was white, 2 percent black, 1 percent Latino and 1 percent other. The population of the state is 64.1 percent white, 27.9 percent black and 5.1 percent Hispanic.
Now, moving toward what has all the markings of a historic ideological and demographic collision on Nov. 6, 2012, Republicans are doubling down on this racially fraught strategy.
While the subject of race and of the overwhelmingly white Republican primary electorate are never explicitly discussed by Republican candidates, the issue is subsumed in blatant anti-immigration rhetoric. As Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, learned the hard way, voicing sympathy for the plight of the undocumented is a sure way to lose ground.