All the talk of Republicans needing to do better among Hispanic voters should not obscure that Romney also failed to maximize his vote total among white voters. Byron York has written a very wise column about how Romney’s Hispanic problem was primarily a middle-class and working-class problem. This means that if a Republican could come up with a message to address the concerns of middle-class voters, “amazingly enough, he’ll win a lot more Hispanic votes in the process. A lot from other groups, too.”
Republican problems among working-class whites and nonwhites of all classes were partly rooted in the perception that the GOP is the party of the wealthy. Romney received 47 percent of the vote. Fifty-three percent of voters believed Romney’s policies would primarily benefit the rich.
Romney won 59 percent of the white vote compared to 55 percent for John McCain in 2008. Romney won the highest share of the white vote of any presidential candidate since George H. W. Bush won 60 percent in 1988. Romney got about 1.4 million more white votes than McCain, but an even bigger reason for Romney’s percentage gain was that Obama received millions fewer white votes in 2012 than in 2008. The national white vote followed the pattern that Henry Olsen detected in certain coal counties where Romney “won higher margins than John McCain did, on substantially lower turnout.”
Romney’s weakness wasn’t just about Romney. He did better in Virginia than Republican senatorial candidate George Allen and better in Wisconsin than Tommy Thompson. For all the (legitimate) complaints about Romney’s opportunism and tone deafness, he outperformed these former governors–turned–senatorial candidates. Romney’s 2012 vote total is probably a good measure of how many people are willing to vote for a personally decent, strongly qualified, merely pro-business Republican against an Obama-style liberal under ambiguous economic conditions. It turned out that the appeal of such a Republican just wasn’t broad enough in 2012.
Focusing on Romney’s weakness among white voters is instructive because it demonstrates the limits of the current Republican establishment’s approach to policy. Romney offered few policies that would have directly benefited the lower middle class. Romney’s across-the-board income tax cut plan would have done little to nothing for people in the bottom half of the income distribution. A tax cut for the boss had insufficient appeal.
But chasing the missing white vote, as such, is insufficient. The white share of the population is in long-term relative decline. Romney won white voters by twenty percentage points, but he only won young white voters by only seven. All other things being equal, cohort replacement will make it tougher for the 2016 Republican nominee to repeat Romney’s performance among whites.
In any case, Romney lost the popular vote by almost five million votes. Any strategy that depends on winning over 60 percent of the white vote in order to squeak out a popular vote victory is fatally flawed. Republicans have only won such margins among whites twice in recent history—when they were winning forty-nine states in 1972 and 1984.
Republicans can remain the party of lower taxes, lower spending, lower regulation, and sustainable debt, while broadening their economic message. First, they should shift their tax policy approach to increasing the child tax credit and cutting taxes on investment. This would increase the disposable income (and work incentives) of working families while encouraging job growth. Republicans could offer market-oriented solutions to cushion working families from catastrophic health care costs.
These proposals don’t violate the principles of conservative voters. An expanded child tax credit might cause some heartburn over at the Wall Street Journal editorial page, but they aren’t going anywhere over this kind of disagreement, and neither is the business community. The long-term tax and spending plans of the Democrats mean that plenty of business dollars will flow to a lower-tax, lower-regulation Republican party.
Maximizing donations won’t help if Republicans have nothing to say to much of the country. Republican-leaning super PACs spent over $300 million in 2012 and could not convince average Americans that the Republican party was on their side. Right now, Republicans need to chase votes rather than dollars. The dollars will be there. The working-class swing voters have to be won over.