Both demography and Bush have gotten the Republican Party to where it is now. Republicans faced long-term demographic challenges even when they were still in the majority. If the racial/ethnic composition of the electorate was the same in 2008 as in 1976, John McCain would have won the popular vote. Republicans have been unable to significantly increase their share of the black vote since it was decimated by the Goldwater campaign in 1964. Asians went from supporting George H.W. Bush more strongly than any other group besides white evangelical Christians in 1992 to becoming a Democratic bloc today. And of course, there is the rising Hispanic vote, which neither the Tancredo nor the McCain wings of the party knows how to win.
The Democrats can more or less directly make the electorate more congenial to their party through immigration policy, increased dependency on government programs, and expanded unionization. Republicans can only very indirectly and imperfectly try to encourage the growth of the “Investor Class.” They obviously can do little or nothing to influence the numbers of white evangelical Christians.
But Bush looms largest in the Republican Party’s recent decline. There was no major demographic transformation of the country between 2004 and 2006. Republicans made significant gains in party identification after 9/11, achieving parity with the Democrats. Those gains have been reversed and identification with the Republican Party is back to where it was in the early Reagan years or worse. That didn’t happen because of demographics.
Take Arlen Specter’s Pennsylvania: when recent ex-Republicans were polled, 68 percent of them said President Bush was a factor in their decision to leave the GOP. Another 54 percent said the Iraq war was. Even some of the demographic threats to the GOP, like the Democratic under-30 vote and the shift of many middle-class educated voters away from the Republicans, reflect the perception that Bush was a failed president.
Ironically, the Bushies worked hard at party-building and candidate recruitment. Bush did more to extend his narrow coattails to fellow Republicans than Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan did during their 49-state landslides. Karl Rove’s strategies did produce short-term gains. But when people did not like the results of Bush’s governance, those gains eroded quickly.
Ronald Reagan’s path to the presidency was cleared by Jimmy Carter’s failures. So too did George W. Bush make possible Barack Obama.
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