The cheap shots being aimed almost hourly at Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice-presidential candidate, from anonymous staffers of Sen. John McCain prove once again that too many losing campaigns sooner or later resemble a civil war in the leper colony.

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

It is true that when asked on Election Day if “Sarah Palin is qualified to be president if necessary,” three out of five voters answered no and that of the half of the electorate who believed that, if elected, “McCain would continue President Bush’s policies,” a full 90 percent of them voted for President-elect Barack Obama. But the problems of the Republican Party are deeper and more serious than disenchantment with the 2008 nominees or even with the lame-duck Bush.

Republicans are an aging party. While President Ronald Reagan attracted a generation of young voters to the Grand Old Party, eight years of Republican White House rule — along with six on Capitol Hill — has resulted in the alienation of the nation’s youngest voters.

In 2000, voters between the ages of 18 and 29 voted for Democrat Al Gore over Bush by the thin margin of 48 percent to 46 percent. Four years later, Democrat Sen. John Kerry won the under-30 vote by 54 percent to Bush’s 45 percent. This time, Democrat Obama and his running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, won 66 percent of voters between 18 and 29, while McCain and Palin received just 32 percent. As a reflection of the Democrats’ growing appeal to all younger voters, while in 2000 and 2004 voters between the ages of 30 and 44 had twice voted Republican, in 2008, they voted Democratic by the decisive margin of 54 percent to 44 percent.

Actually, the only age cohort of voters who supported the Republican presidential ticket in 2008 was the 16 percent of voters who are over the age of 65. If demography is destiny, the Republican outlook is as bleak as the Democrats’ is rosy. While the younger generation is voting more and more Democratic, the Republicans most loyal supporters are aging fast.

To put it bluntly: Democrats are moving from a room of their own to an apartment of their own on the way to a home of their own; Republican voters, by contrast, are moving from their own home to the retirement home to the nursing home and the funeral home.

Add to this the growing changes in the face of the American electorate. In 2000, presidential voters were 81 percent white. In 2004, the white share of the total was down to 77 percent. In 2008, just 74 percent of all voters were white. Since 2000, Latino voters have grown to 9 percent from 7 percent of the whole. But more disturbingly for Republicans, their party’s support from that growing constituency fell to just 31 percent in 2008 from 44 percent in 2004. So as Latinos matter more and more, they vote Republican less and less.

Finally, exit polls in the last three presidential elections all have asked voters whether government should do more or do less. In 2000, by a 53 percent to 43 percent score, voters wanted government to do less not more. Voters have done a complete turnaround to the Democrats’ direction in eight years, with a 51 percent majority today in favor of a more activist federal government and 43 percent opposed. This means that even before the October financial crisis, voters had moved beyond the era of deregulation toward support of a more aggressive federal role to prevent rip-offs of citizens and corporate abuses.

Bush, who, as has been observed, came into office as a social conservative and is leaving office as a conservative socialist, will soon be vacating the Oval Office. But he will not be taking his party’s problems with him. Because in the changing composition of the American electorate as well as in voters’ changing attitudes and priorities, the Republicans are now on the losing side.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.