Demographics Aren’t Destiny for America’s Republicans

Old conservatives won’t be around forever but voters everywhere get more conservative as they grow older.

An attendee of the Republican National Convention in Saint Paul, Minnesota holds a balloon, September 4, 2008
An attendee of the Republican National Convention in Saint Paul, Minnesota holds a balloon, September 4, 2008 (PBS/Tom LeGro)

Republican voters in the United States tend to be older than Democrats. This has been true for decades, so to argue, as Daniel J. McGraw does at Politico, that the Grand Old Party will “literally” die off overlooks the simple fact that people get more conservative as they grow older.

McGraw points out that young Americans are more liberal than their parents while the generation of their grandparents votes in greater numbers.

What else is new?

It would be surprising if Americans in their twenties and thirties, accustomed to a world that is more connected, globalized and multicultural and therefore more tolerant of different backgrounds, races and sexual identities, wasn’t more liberal. But as people settle down, marry, buy houses and have children, their priorities shift from the social issues that now make youngsters vote Democrat (if they vote at all) to economic concerns that are more likely to make them vote Republican.

Which is not to say they’ll become social conservatives. The Republican Party could still be in trouble with a changing electorate if it doesn’t change.

The Atlantic Sentinel argued immediately after Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election and again earlier this year that Republicans must tone down their rhetoric and move to the center a little to remain nationally competitive — especially on identity issues.

In the swing states that determined the outcome of the last election, a majority of voters — according to exit polls — agreed with Republicans that the federal government should do less. Voters who identified as either conservative or moderate far outnumbered those who said they leaned left in the seven states where neither Democrats nor Republicans had a solid majority. More voters in Iowa and Ohio identified as conservatives than in the rest of the country yet both states reelected Barack Obama.

Except in New Hampshire and Wisconsin, swing voters were also more likely to oppose the president’s health reforms than support them.

Yet the better-educated, better-off, urban and suburban middle-class voters of whatever race in states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia voted against their interest in lower taxes and less government because they heard Republican reactionaries say ridiculous things about climate change, homosexuality, rape and women’s rights.

Slate‘s Jamelle Bouie is optimistic the party can change. He argues that Republicans will find a new working national majority, “even if the country becomes as brown and liberal as some analysts project.”

Any Republican Party that drives in 2024 or 2028 is one that looks substantially different from the one that exists today. No, that doesn’t mean it’s a diet version of the Democrats but that it’s responding to a different set of voters than it has now. In all likelihood, it’s reconciled itself to the reality of the welfare state and works to alter its shape and incentives. It’s more permissive on public morality — tolerant of same-sex marriage, for instance — but still a home for more traditional voters who oppose abortion and are uncomfortable with rapid social change.

If America’s rightwingers need a template, they could do worse than look at Britain’s David Cameron; a Conservative Party leader who is really more of a liberal in the classical sense and has now won two elections in a row.