The Incredible Shrinking Republican Base
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1. Republicans Upstaged By Democratic Race

2. Is The Republican Base Shrinking?

3. Conclusions – A Glimpse Into The Future?

4. Why Is Hillary Still In The Race?


With all of the attention being paid to Clinton and Obama as they vie for the Democratic nomination for president, less media attention has been focused on John McCain and those who will be counted upon to elect him to the highest office in the land. After all, the Democratic contest is far more interesting, with almost daily gaffes, blunders and/or attacks from one or the other candidates, not to mention Slick Willie.

In contrast, the Republican nomination is already a “done deal,” with just the selection of a running mate still to be determined. There have been stories about whether or not the hard-core conservatives making up the Republican base will support McCain, but they seem to be coming to the conclusion that McCain is better than Hillary or Barack.

Of course, this “hold your nose and vote” idea assumes that the Republican base is made up of a certain demographic, namely white, married and Christian. While this description has been largely accurate over the past few decades, and still is to a great extent, there are indications that this demographic may be changing, perhaps in important ways. If so, this demographic sea change could transform Republican politics far into the future.

An excellent recent article by Dr. Alan Abramowitz discusses the dilution of the traditional Republican base within the general population, and what it may mean to the future of the GOP. Dr. Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University, and the author of Voice of the People: Elections and Voting Behavior in the United States (2004, McGraw-Hill).

While I am not a member of any political party and never have been, I am conservative and therefore line up with the Republicans on most issues. Thus, any indication that conservative ideals may have to take a back seat due to changing demographics is a major concern, at least to me. In this week’s E-Letter, I reprint Dr. Abramowitz’s timely article, and I hope you will take the time to read it and think about it. Following that, I will offer a brief analysis of my own, and end with a few comments on the state of the Hillary/Obama race at this point.

The Incredible Shrinking Republican Base
by Dr. Alan Abramowitz


Discussions of the current political situation and comparisons between the 2008 election and earlier contests frequently overlook a crucial fact. As a result of changes in American society, today's electorate is very different from the electorate of twenty, thirty, or forty years ago. Three long-term trends have been especially significant in this regard: increasing racial diversity, declining rates of marriage, and changes in religious beliefs. As a result of these trends, today's voters are less likely to be white, less likely to be married, and less likely to consider themselves Christians than voters of just a few decades ago.

The combined impact of these trends on the composition of the electorate has been dramatic. Married white Christians now make up less than half of all voters in the United States and less than one fifth of voters under the age of 30. The declining proportion of married white Christians in the electorate has important political implications because in recent years married white Christians have been among the most loyal supporters of the Republican Party. In American politics today, whether you are a married white Christian is a much stronger predictor of your political preferences than your gender or your class -- the two demographic characteristics that dominate much of the debate on contemporary American politics.

Figure 1 displays the trends in the proportions of whites, married persons, and Christian identifiers in the U.S. electorate over the past half century according to data from the American National Election Studies. Between the middle of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, the proportion of whites has fallen by about 15 percentage points, the proportion of married persons has fallen by about 25 percentage points, and the proportion of Christian identifiers has fallen by about 10 percentage points.

Figure 1

Married individuals still make up a large majority of the electorate, whites are still close to 80 percent of the electorate, and Christians are still over 80 percent of the electorate. However, the combined impact of the changes illustrated in Figure 1 has been enormous. Married white Christians have gone from close to 80 percent of the electorate in the 1950s to just over 40 percent of the electorate in the first decade of the 21st century. Moreover, the data displayed in Figure 2 show that the decline in married white Christians has been even more drastic among younger Americans. The proportion of married white Christians among voters under the age of 30 has plummeted from almost 80 percent in the 1950s to less than 20 percent in the first decade of the 21st century.

Figure 2

These changes in the social composition of the American electorate are politically significant because married white Christians now constitute the core of the Republican electoral coalition. Not only are married white Christians more likely to support the GOP than other Americans, but, as the data displayed in Figure 3 show, the gap between these two groups has widened from less than 10 percentage points in the 1950s to 25 percentage points in the first decade of the 21st century.

Figure 3

Even though married white Christians have been shrinking as a proportion of the American electorate, the Republican Party has been able to maintain and even slightly increase its share of the electorate since the 1960s by steadily increasing its support among married white Christians. The data in Figure 3 show that between the 1950s and the first decade of the 21st century, Republican identification among married white Christians increased by more than 20 percentage points, going from about 40 percent to over 60 percent. However, the ability of the GOP to continue to offset the diminishing size of its married white Christian base by making further gains among this group is questionable. Republican gains among married white Christians have occurred almost entirely among self-identified conservatives. Between the 1970s and the first decade of the 21st century, Republican identification among conservative married white Christians increased by 26 points, going from 64 percent to 90 percent, according to NES data. During the same time period, Republican identification among moderate married white Christians increased by only five points, going from 38 percent to 43 percent and Republican identification among liberal married white Christians actually declined by 10 points, falling from 23 percent to 13 percent. These results suggest that the potential for additional Republican gains among married white Christians may be limited. Conservative married white Christians already overwhelmingly identify with the GOP and the party has had little success in increasing its support among moderate-to-liberal married white Christians.

The danger posed to the Republican Party by the declining size of its married white Christian base was clearly illustrated by the results of the 2006 midterm election. According to the 2006 national exit poll, married white Christians made up just under half of the midterm electorate and they voted for Republican House candidates over Democratic House candidates by a decisive 62 to 38 percent margin. However, voters who were not married white Christians made up just over half of the electorate and they voted for Democratic House candidates over Republican House candidates by an even more decisive 68 to 32 percent margin. The result was a big win for the Democrats in the midterm election.

In addition to the large gains made by Democrats in the House and Senate elections, another striking feature of the 2006 results was the presence of a fairly large generation gap within the electorate. As the data displayed in Table 1 show, voters under the age of 30 were considerably more likely to identify with the Democratic Party and vote for Democratic candidates than older voters. While the youth vote was not solely responsible for the Democratic victory in 2006, the party's 22 point advantage among voters under the age of 30 clearly contributed to the magnitude of that victory.

Figure 4

An important question about the generation gap in the 2006 election is whether it was based mainly on short-term factors such as discontent with the war in Iraq, or whether it reflected long-term trends in the demographic make-up of the American electorate. We have already seen that the decline in the proportion of married white Christians since the 1950s has been much more dramatic among younger voters than among older voters and the results of this long-term trend were clearly reflected in the social characteristics of the 2006 electorate. According to the national exit poll data, only 17 percent of voters under the age of 30 were married white Christians compared with just over half of older voters.

Figure 5

In order to determine whether long-term demographic changes were responsible for the generation gap in voting behavior, I compared the preferences of younger and older voters in the 2006 House elections while controlling for their demographic characteristics. The results displayed in Table 2 show that married white Christians under the age of 30 were just as likely to vote for a Republican House candidate as married white Christians over the age of 30. Similarly, voters over the age of 30 who were not married white Christians were just as likely to vote for a Democratic House candidate as voters under the age of 30 who were not married white Christians. Thus, the current generation gap in voting behavior appears to be completely explained by the difference between the proportions of married white Christians in these two groups. The reason that voters under the age of 30 are now significantly more Democratic than older voters is that they are much less likely to be married, white, and Christian.

In addition to age, two other demographic characteristics that have received a great deal of attention in commentary on the 2008 election are gender and class. In recent weeks there has been endless speculation about the relative abilities of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to appeal to two groups whose support is widely considered to be critical to Democratic chances in November: lower income whites and white women. The assumption here is that class and gender play important roles in shaping voter preferences in the contemporary electorate. However, the evidence from the 2006 national exit poll shows that whether someone was a married white Christian was a much stronger predictor of his or her political preferences than either gender or class.

Figure 6

According to the evidence displayed in Table 3, after controlling for whether or not a voter was a married white Christian, neither gender nor income had much influence on voters' preferences. Women who were married white Christians voted overwhelmingly for Republican candidates and men who were not married white Christians voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates. Similarly, lower income individuals who were married white Christians voted overwhelmingly for Republican candidates and upper income individuals who were not married white Christians voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates.

The decline in the proportion of married white Christians in the American electorate has been going on for a long time. Moreover, the large generational difference in the prevalence of married white Christians in the contemporary electorate suggests that this trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. What cannot be predicted as confidently is how party leaders will respond to this trend. Right now, Democrats appear likely to benefit from a continued decline in the proportion of married white Christians in the electorate because this group has strongly supported Republican candidates in recent elections while voters who are not married white Christians have strongly supported Democratic candidates.

Since the potential for additional Republican gains among married white Christians appears to be limited, Republican leaders will need to find ways to reduce the Democratic advantage among voters who are not married white Christians in order to maintain the party's competitive position. However, given the generally liberal views of this group, this will not be easy. In 2006, according to data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, 57 percent of these voters supported a woman's right to choose an abortion under any circumstances, 66 percent opposed a constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage, and 71 percent favored a single-payer health care system. Any attempt by Republican leaders to significantly increase their party's support among voters who are not married white Christians would therefore require changes in some of the party's longstanding policy commitments -- changes that would clearly upset a large segment of the current Republican base.



While the ideological shift in the general population described by Dr. Abramowitz may prove to be problematic for Republicans at some time in the future, I think this change will be gradual in coming to pass. The data given in the charts and graphs above indicate that the Republican base is as solid as ever, even if John McCain is not the ideal candidate. Nevertheless, I don’t think these demographic trends are something that we can just ignore and assume that conservatives will always make up the “silent majority.”

One characteristic of conservatives in the US is their cohesiveness on certain “core issues” such as limited government, Supreme Court judges, gun control, immigration, abortion and gay marriage, among others. Thus, I found Dr. Abramowitz’s article to be of great interest in that the 2008 election may serve as a forerunner of future election cycles.

As we all know, McCain is no conservative in many ways. He has supported amnesty for illegal aliens, voted against tax cuts and co-authored the albatross known as the McCain – Feingold Act under the guise of “campaign reform.” Now, however, he is seeking the support of the Republican base – a group he has previously dubbed the “agents of intolerance.” Of course, that was then and this is now, so he’s forced to pander to the very groups he once criticized.

Though he was not the favorite of many conservatives, and certainly not of the religious right, he somehow pulled off one of the greatest come-from-behind victories in recent memory. He rose from the point of almost quitting the presidential race from lack of support and money to the position of presumed Republican nominee.

Was McCain’s rise to prominence due to the changing demographics that favor more moderate stances on core conservative issues? Or, was he just in the right place at the right time, being the last viable candidate left standing after the actual conservatives spent themselves in all-out campaigning?

Whatever the reason, it will be interesting to see just how McCain fares among independent voters, many of whom are moderate in their views, and the traditional right-wing core of the Republican Party. Will he somehow find a way to appeal to both demographics, or go down in flames by trying to be all things to all people? I don’t know the answer, but it’s sure to be an interesting race to watch, especially if it offers us a peek into how traditional Republicans will vote when candidates do not share some of their core beliefs.

And One Last Question:
Why Is Hillary Still In The Race?

If you read me on a regular basis, I must assume that you are at least somewhat up on the political scene, so I’ll be brief here. In my April 29 E-Letter, I discussed in specifics why Hillary could not win the Democratic presidential nomination. Now this is becoming clear to all. For better or worse, Obama is about to clinch the nomination.

The question is, why is Hillary continuing the fight, and more importantly why is she spending millions of her (and Bill’s) own money to do so? This issue boils down to one of two questions, assuming that Hillary knows (as she should) that she is going to lose. And she knows she will not be Obama’s choice for the VP slot, which she wouldn’t accept anyway. So why keep fighting and spending millions of her own money?

Question #1: Does she want Obama to lose, and McCain win, so she can come back for another potential presidential run in 2012? This is a very interesting question. It is clear that the Democratic nominee will be Barack Obama – this has been clear for some time as I have written. So, has Hillary recently decided that her best option would be to undermine him and hope he loses in November, so she can run again in 2012? Realistically, we should not rule this out. It’s the Clintons, let’s not forget.

Question #2: Is Hillary keeping on to try and get Obama to repay her the $15-$20 million she has spent of her own money in the late days of her campaign in exchange for her support? Hillary has pumped close to $20 million or more of her (and Bill’s) money into her campaign in the last few months. Could she be holding on hoping that Barack will agree to a backroom deal to pay off her campaign debts if she will drop out and support him? Stranger things have happened.

Then there is the question of whether Barack could legally pay her off to get her out or not. Some believe that there is no legal way that Barack could pay off Hillary’s huge campaign debts. I don’t know the rules, but I wouldn’t rule anything out.

In any event, it looks like the Clintons are on their way out, which nothing could please many conservatives more. Yet who knows what will happen if the most liberal Senator in the Congress becomes our next president, especially with a large Democratic majority in Congress… I hate to think.

Boy o’ boy will this be interesting as it plays out! I’m just glad that politics is just an amateur sport for me. That’s all for this week. Have a great Memorial Day weekend!

Very best regards,

Gary D. Halbert


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Posted 05-20-2008 3:37 PM by Gary D. Halbert
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