Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Republicans' Demographic Problem

I seldom feel moved to make comments on politics.  This morning after Super Tuesday, though, I was playing with the LA Times' maps showing county-by-county winners in the Republican primaries.  For the most part, one trend seems very clear: Romney wins urban areas, the other guys win the rural areas.  In Ohio, Romney won on the basis of  Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati; Romney lost Tennessee, but won Nashville (and basically a dead heat in Knoxville); Gingrich won Georgia, but Romney won Atlanta; even back in South Carolina, where Gingrich managed to stay in the race, Romney won Columbia and Charleston.

Unlike many, I think the Republican nomination is a done deal now, and Romney has it.  It may take a while for things to play out, but the outcome is pretty much a given.  The several big urban states that haven't held their primaries yet will be decisive: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, California.  Santorum has the favorite-son advantage in PA, but the others should be solid Romney victories based on winning in urban areas.  With Rick Perry out of the race, even Texas could be interesting: will Romney win Houston, DFW, San Antonio?

The knock on Romney throughout the primary season has been that he can't "connect" with the Republican Party base.  The maps make it pretty clear that the interpretation of that should be that Romney can't connect with Republican voters outside of the urban areas.  If those voters are the base, the Republican Party ought to be concerned about the map below (originally published by the Texas Tribune).  From 2000 to 2010, metro areas across the country have been growing in population and the rural areas shrinking.  Note that the picture in the West is somewhat misleading because of the physical size of many counties; the population growth in Southern California, Nevada, and Arizona is much more concentrated than the graphic suggests.

The areas where Romney has been doing well are, of course, also areas where Democrats tend to do well.  Which is the demographic problem the Republicans face.  If you drag up one of red/blue maps for the 2008 Presidential election, most of those same high-growth counties correspond well with counties that Obama won.  The Republicans need a transformation; how do they become a party that is well-regarded by voters in urban areas?  The obvious answer is to promote policies that solve problems in urban areas, although I think that's hard for them.  Too many of their current policy positions are rural-oriented.

As one example, consider high gasoline prices.  I have long argued that high gas prices hit rural areas much harder than they do urban areas.  Average income tends to be higher in urban areas; urban areas are more likely to have alternatives to personal automobiles (eg, mass transit or ride sharing) than rural areas; small high-mileage cars are more practical in an urban setting than a rural one.  Democrats can talk about carbon taxes in order to force gasoline use down, because urban voters have choices.  Even ignoring the current Republican no-new-taxes stance, it's a lot harder for a Republican to propose such a tax because the burden will be heavier on the rural voters, whom the Republican is more likely to represent.

At some point the Republicans have to figure out how to be a conservative urban party, or face becoming irrelevant.  They can fight a holding action in the US Senate because of the current rules that allow a group of 41 Senators to block legislation.  But in the long run, they have to figure out the urban thing.

1 comment:

  1. I have a lot of thoughts on the subject, how whether I agree or not depends on how you define "urban." I don't believe they will ever be the urban party. I do think they have a future as the suburban party. Right now, the suburban vote tends to provide the balance in elections. In red states, they typically vote red. In blue states, they tend towards blue. It's where the battleground is and is likely to be.

    The urban/rural problem is only a problem if it comes to be that suburbanites associate themselves more with their anchor cities rather than outside them. One of the problems in the GOP is that they are so defining themselves as the rural party that they're losing educated suburbanites. They're drawing the lines of the culture war so tightly that the suburban votes they desperately need are on the wrong side of it.