When Ronald Reagan won the White House in 1980, the electorate was 88 percent white. Last year, only 72 percent of the voters casting ballots for president were white, and by 2016, that number will plunge again.
This trend poses an enormous problem for Republicans. As Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on NBC earlier this year, “we’re in a demographic death spiral as a party.”
But instead of recognizing that demographic reality, instead of appealing to new voters, many Republicans are following a very different strategy: Stop them from voting.
This strategy of exclusion has two elements. One is to oppose any path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in this country. The other is to make it more difficult for marginalized citizens — the poor, the elderly, the uneducated — to exercise their rights to vote.
Both options might produce short-term benefits. If those newcomers don’t gain citizenship, they can’t vote. And a slew of new state laws — requiring photo IDs to vote, shortening poll hours, hindering registration drives — would clearly decrease the Democratic base.
But in the long run, demography is destiny. Smart Republicans like Graham know that and are backing another option: inclusion, not exclusion. Welcome those new voters instead of driving them away.
Start with immigration. Republican opponents of reform usually cast their position as a legal principle. Laws must be upheld. Violators must be punished. Citizenship is “amnesty.”
But the underlying motive is politics, not principal, and Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho made that clear during a recent speech at the Heritage Foundation. “It would be crazy” for Republicans to negotiate with the president over an immigration bill, he warned, because “he’s trying to destroy the Republican Party” by enfranchising more Democratic voters.
Exactly the opposite is true. The “crazy” course for Republicans is denying reality and opposing an immigration bill. As Graham says, “If we don’t pass immigration reform, if we don’t get it off the table in a reasonable practical way, it doesn’t matter who you run in 2016.”
Sen. John McCain of Arizona made a similar point during the Senate debate over immigration earlier this year: “Passing this bill would not give us a single vote, but it would put us on the playing field where we can compete.”
Republicans can compete. Many immigrants are Catholics with conservative social views; they are often small business people who identify with the Republican message of lower taxes and less regulation. George W. Bush made outreach to Latinos a major element of his campaigns and won 44 percent of the group in 2004, far above Mitt Romney’s 27 percent eight years later.
Years ago, Cokie covered a naturalization ceremony in California, and both parties had set up registration tables outside the event. The GOP table was crowded by new citizens who explained, “I came here to make it. The Republicans are the party of winners and the Democrats are the party of losers.”
But that advantage has been squandered by the party’s relentless hostility on immigration; the new laws making it harder to vote in many states are blemishing the Republican reputation as well.
As in the immigration debate, supporters of restrictive laws say they are merely upholding a legal principle. They are necessary to root out voter fraud. But voter fraud is a myth. The real reason is maximizing political advantage.
A federal appeals court judge, Richard Posner, wrote the majority opinion in a 2-to-1 ruling on an Indiana case that upheld ID laws; his decision was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in 2008 and is often cited by Republicans as the legal justification for their legislative proposals.
Posner recently recanted his decision, however, and said of the dissenting judge, “I think he was right.” That judge, the late Terence Evans, had directly pinpointed the real reason for the Indiana law, which had passed on a straight party-line vote: “Let’s not beat around the bush: The Indiana voter photo ID law is a not-too-thinly veiled attempt to discourage election day turnout by folks believed to skew Democratic.”
Let’s not beat around the bush, either. Graham is right, the “demographic death spiral” will eventually squeeze the life out of the Republican Party if they don’t take steps to reverse it. But on two key issues, immigration and voter ID laws, the GOP is working against its own long-term interests. It’s alienating the very people it will need to win elections in the future.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at email@example.com.