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Mark Shields: California a Case Study of Elections and Immigration

The future of the Republican Party rests on whether it can respond to changing demographics

Mike Murphy, the successful and shrewd Republican media strategist, is a heretic within his own party. Sensitive to the near-universal reverence Republicans of all ages pay to the legacy and presidency of Ronald Reagan, Murphy bluntly warns his fellow Republicans that — given the profound, and continuing, demographic changes during the past three decades — Reagan would have a tough time beating Jimmy Carter today.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

Consider this reality. In his 1980 race against President Carter, when Gov. Reagan won 56 percent of the nation’s white vote, whites made up 88 percent of the total national electorate. Simply stated, Reagan’s 1980 share of the white vote alone constituted 49.3 percent of all voters. This meant that for the Gipper to achieve his overall 51 percent majority, he simply had to earn the support of one out of seven nonwhite voters — which is what he did.

But by 2008, enormous changes were taking place. The white share of the national vote had fallen to 74 percent. So Reagan’s 56 percent share of that group would have translated into just 41.2 percent of all voters. Demographic shifts, by themselves, would have subtracted more than 8 percentage points from Reagan’s 1980 victory margin.

Murphy uses facts such as these as a reminder that nobody can live in the past and succeed politically. Having worked for a couple of dozen Republican candidates — including John McCain, Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger — Murphy has real credibility when he warns his party that anti-immigrant rhetoric of the variety heard from — mostly losing — Republican candidates in 2008 and 2010 could doom the party of Abraham Lincoln and Reagan to permanent minority status.

Consider California, where Murphy now lives. In 2008, whites were just 63 percent of the total state vote. African-American, Latino, Asian and other totaled 37 percent. By Murphy’s calculations, unless Republicans can dramatically improve their following among those groups of voters (whom President Barack Obama carried collectively by more than 75 percent), Republican candidates will be required to win a minimum two out of three California white votes to win a statewide election. In 2008, McCain received 46 percent of the votes of white Californians.

California is a case study of what can happen. From 1948 to 1992, the Republicans carried the Golden State in every presidential election — except for Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 landslide. But since then, the Democrats have carried California in five consecutive presidential elections. In a reminder of political consequences, Republicans should remember that Pete Wilson used menacing TV spots featuring footage of illegal immigrants to win re-election while endorsing Proposition 187, which banned undocumented immigrants from receiving public services, including public education or medical care.

As 2008 could very well turn out, that 1994 campaign provided a short-term political advantage to Wilson and the Republicans. But two years later, two committed civil-rights Republicans on the national ticket, Bob Dole and Jack Kemp, won barely one out of five Latino votes in California, while losing the state. Since Proposition 187, no California Republican has won a U.S. Senate race.

Even more alarming for Republicans, the white share of the overall U.S. population is predicted by census projections to drop to 60 percent by 2020. Another cautionary note: The lion’s share of the Latino growth over the next generation will not come from immigration, but rather from the children of past immigrants who already live here.

In fact, Democratic pollster Peter Hart predicts that Texas — the reddest Republican of the nation’s big states — will, because of its fast-growing Hispanic population, by 2024 — just four presidential elections away — have become a Democratic blue state.

Over the remaining 3½ months of the 2010 campaign, the future competitiveness of the Republican Party nationally may well hinge on whether Republican candidates can resist in these difficult economic times the cheap demagoguery of immigrant-blaming and instead seek common cause with the new and ever-changing American electorate.

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.

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