Republicans are engaged in some public “soul-searching,” which is what we usually call it when members of a defeated party explain that the party went wrong by not taking the advice they’ve been giving all along.
One of the most common arguments at the moment is that demography has become doom for Republicans. The party is worried primarily about three groups: Hispanics, women and young people. To court Hispanics, many Republicans think they need to change their policies on immigration. For women, it’s their approach to abortion and contraception. For young people, same-sex marriage.
While there is something to each of these arguments, Republicans are making a mistake by thinking about voters in these categories. The root of the party’s electoral challenge isn’t demographics: It’s economics.
Call it the tyranny of the cross-tab: Republicans look at the polls that show a group voting against them, and then take the mental shortcut of assuming it’s mainly because of some issue distinctive to that group. One result is to oversimplify reality: to obscure the facts that married women tend to vote Republican, for example, as do young evangelical Christians. Race, sex and age influence but don’t determine how people will vote — and the influence is often subtler than generally assumed.
Republican views on immigration, and the way they express those views, must play a role in how poorly Republicans do with Hispanics. Republicans haven’t found a way to reassure conservative voters that the country will respect the rule of law without also making Hispanics think that the party is hostile to them. A way out of this predicament doesn’t immediately suggest itself.
Even if a solution were found, though, the growing number of Hispanic voters would continue to mean trouble for Republicans. Hispanics are disproportionately poor and uninsured. And like people of other races in similar situations, they tend to have views on economic policy that align with the Democrats. In California, for example, Hispanics helped get Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax increases approved on Election Day. A Republican Party that is associated with repealing Obama’s health care legislation — and not with any alternative plan to get people health insurance — is going to get trounced among these voters.
Public support for same-sex marriage has risen a lot, among young people especially, and the Republican Party will have to soften its opposition to it. Again, though, there is an economic dimension to the party’s trouble. Young people are also less economically secure than the middle-aged and the retired who vote Republican more frequently. That has to play a role in the way they vote. What have Republicans up and down the ticket offered to address the concerns of economically stressed young people? A vague promise to create more jobs; an entitlement reform that, even viewed charitably, would do nothing for them here and now.
There aren’t many Republicans who think it’s smart for candidates to let opposition to abortion in cases of rape become a major issue in campaigns. That stance is unpopular among women and men alike (slightly more among men, according to a Gallup Poll). Elections have generally shown that even Republican politicians who favor legal abortion do worse among women than among men. Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, one of those Republicans, did 12 points worse as he was defeated. (Mitt Romney did only 8 points worse.)
Although polls don’t find differences between men and women on what everyone calls “women’s issues,” they do find differences on policy issues we don’t usually consider in terms of gender. Women are more liberal on health care, on defense spending and on anti-poverty programs. A smarter approach to abortion, however necessary for Republicans, won’t change that.
The common theme here is that the current Republican economic message isn’t very compelling to any of these groups. If Republicans addressed that problem, they would find their numbers improving in all of these groups, and outside them too. White, working-class voters, who supported Romney for president but seem to have had low turnout, might have shown up in greater numbers if Republicans had retooled on economics.
Men and women, whites and Hispanics, the young and the middle-aged: All of them want politicians to offer a practical agenda to create jobs, raise wages, and make health care and higher education more affordable. Most of them aren’t wedded to liberal answers on those issues. They will take them over nothing, and that’s what Republicans have been giving them.
Republicans are unlikely to return to majority status, or even keep their current strength, unless they do better. Looking at voters in categories of race, sex and age won’t help them do that.
Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review.