After the Senate approved comprehensive immigration reform yesterday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was asked whether his party could recover, electorally, if Republicans kill the legislation. McCain took a deep breath, shook his head, and said, "No."
It's a fair assessment. The Republican Party's base is older and overwhelmingly white in a country that's growing more racially and ethnically diverse. The fastest growing segment of the voting population are Latinos, who are moving quickly and deliberately away from the GOP. "This is," Rachel noted on the show last night, "an un-survivable situation for a national party."
At least, that's what common sense would seem to suggest, though quite a few Republican voices disagree. None other than Karl Rove noted in his Wall Street Journal column today, "Some observers, including Phyllis Schlafly, Pat Buchanan and the Center for Immigration Studies, argue that if Republicans want to win back the White House, they should focus on white voters."
They're not alone. As Ed Kilgore explained this week, Sean Trende has become the go-to conservative voice on the subject, writing piece after piece after piece arguing that the premise is flawed -- if Republicans can increase their share of the white vote to, say, 70% or so, the party can remain electorally viable for a few more decades.
How would the Republican Party increase its share of the white vote to 70%? I don't know. In fact, the more I think about it, I'm not sure I want to know. But for Trende, that's not really the point -- if the GOP pulls that off, the demographic time bomb is put off until around 2040.
As a matter of statistics, I suppose it's a reasonable enough argument, but there are some relevant troubles with the thesis.
For one thing, there's the question of heightened polarization. The more the GOP takes deliberate steps to pander to white voters to boost white turnout -- or as Kilgore put it, double down on being the "White Man's Party" -- the more it risks alienating everyone else, including moderate and liberal whites.
There's also a generational issue -- for Trende's thesis to work in the coming years, white turnout would have to go up quite a bit, but younger whites tend to be more liberal and Democratic. In other words, the GOP would need more votes from the very folks who are, at the risk of sounding indelicate, dying off.
With this in mind, it would seem Republicans have to choose between figuring out how to squeeze more votes out of elderly white folks and repairing their relationship with everyone else. The answer should be obvious, but there's no guarantee that will matter.