After Gov. Mitt Romney lost the presidential election to Barack Obama in 2012, the Republican National Committee conducted a searing examination. The result was not just an autopsy of one candidate’s defeat but also a dire prognosis of the Republican Party in future contests.
The report noted that the “minority groups that President Obama carried with 80 percent of the vote in 2012 are on track to become a majority of the nation’s population by 2050.” Demography, as the saying goes, is destiny in electoral politics. And demography was not on the GOP’s side.
To align the party more closely with demographic changes in American society, the report urged the Republican Party to “focus its efforts to earn new supporters and voters in the following demographic communities: Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islanders, African Americans, Indian Americans, Native Americans, women, and youth.”
The new priority, the RNC study stressed, needed to inspire all aspects of Republican activities, but especially “messaging, strategy, outreach, and budget.” It was quite a radical proposal for a party whose major demographic was white men. But if the party did not embracing the report’s conclusion, it might very likely risk extinction.
As it turned out, doomsday did not arrive with the November 2016 election.
Donald Trump was elected president with a playbook that not only ignored the admonitions of the RNC report, but it also downright defied it.
He notoriously launched his presidential campaign by offending many Hispanics with his promise to build a wall at the Mexican border and his language for those crossing the border illegally. He got on the wrong side with Asian-Americans by bashing China, made derogatory comments about women, and provoked the ire of African-Americans with his depiction of their wretched conditions (“What do you have to lose?”). It still boggles the minds of many observers, including a good number of Republicans and especially the authors of the 2012 RNC post-mortem, that such a campaign was not a recipe for electoral disaster.
This is not to say that the torrent of offending remarks reaped electoral rewards for Trump; even some of his own supporters may have been bothered by them. The point is that this Republican candidate did not make the demographic outreach that the RNC report urged as a top priority, and he still won. If demography was Trump’s destiny is must be found somewhere else.
Anyone staying up long enough until the wee hours after Election Day could not have missed the clue. It came when the networks called a state for Trump that had been safely counted for Clinton in pre-election projections, part the “blue wall.”
The state was Pennsylvania. It was highly symbolic that the state’s 20 electoral votes, according to NBC, pushed Trump’s count above the needed 270 mark. Trump clinched the election in a state no Republican presidential candidate had won since 1988. And he certainly did not win it with an outreach to minorities, women and millennials.
Trump won the state by capturing a demographic that had long been a loyal pillar of the Democratic Party: working-class whites. In Pennsylvania, according to exit polls, white voters without a college degree went 2-1 for Trump over Hillary Clinton. They are quite a large group, making up 4 in every 10 voters in the state.
What interviews on the news with some voters in rustbelt towns had hinted at during the campaign materialized on Election Day. This was Trump country. Not just in Pennsylvania. By virtually the same margin, Trump won the vote of whites without a college degree in two other blue states: Wisconsin (62-34 percent), Michigan (62-31 percent ); plus in the battleground state of Ohio (63-33 percent). It was a sweep across the industrial heartland of America, in Democratic bastions going back to the days of the New Deal.
No other GOP contender in the 2016 had such a design in his or her playbook. Only Trump had it in an election in which the American electorate was eager for change.
Yet politics is not without a touch of irony. The man Trump just picked as his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, was none other than the one who oversaw the notorious RNC report that Trump defied.
Helmut Norpoth is professor of political science at Stony Brook University. His book “Commander in Chief: Franklin Roosevelt and the American People” is forthcoming.