The evolution of the Republican Party voter

Reuters

U.S. Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain (R-AZ) speaks during his election night rally in Phoenix, November 4, 2008.

Article Highlights

  • To see how the base of the Republican Party has changed over the years, compare two presidential elections, 1944 & 1988.

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  • The core of the Republican Party throughout its history has been voters who are generally seen as typical Americans.

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  • Republicans assembling in Tampa should keep in mind that in 2008, as in 1944, their party was in the minority.

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To see how the base of the Republican Party has changed over the years, compare two presidential elections, 1944 and 1988. In both, the winning candidate was the nominee of the party that had long held the White House—for three terms by 1944 and for two terms by 1988. The winning candidate in both cases found his strongest regional support in the South; his second-strongest region was the West. Both times, the winning candidate narrowly carried all but one of the large Eastern and Midwestern states—New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois.

One thing was different. The winner in 1944 was a Democrat, Franklin Roosevelt. The winner in 1988 was a Republican, George H.W. Bush.

There have been further changes in the Republican Party vote since 1988. George H.W. Bush won by large margins in affluent suburban counties. To take one example, Mr. Bush won 61% of the vote in the four suburban counties outside Philadelphia—Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery—and carried Pennsylvania. More recently, affluent suburbs outside the South—showing a distaste for cultural conservatism and for the increasingly Southern accent of the Republican Party—have trended Democratic. In 2008, Barack Obama won 57% in these four counties outside Philadelphia, and he carried Pennsylvania.

By contrast, the senior Bush got whipped in West Virginia, one of only 10 states he lost in 1988. He also trailed in the steel and coal country from western Pennsylvania and southeastern Ohio running down to eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia. But in 2008, voters there turned up their noses at Barack Obama. He lost not only West Virginia but also Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas, all of which were carried twice by his fellow Democrat Bill Clinton.

"The core of the Republican Party throughout its history has been voters who are generally seen by themselves and by others as typical Americans—but who by themselves don't constitute a majority of what has always been an economically, culturally and religiously diverse nation." -Michael BaroneThe core of the Republican Party throughout its history has been voters who are generally seen by themselves and by others as typical Americans—but who by themselves don't constitute a majority of what has always been an economically, culturally and religiously diverse nation. But, as the electoral data cited above suggest, the nature of that core group has changed over time.

In the 19th century, the Republican core consisted of northern Protestants (and any blacks who were allowed to vote). It was founded as a North-only party, and its first presidential candidate, John C. Fremont in 1856, received no votes in slave states.

So enduring was the trauma of the Civil War that for nearly a century afterward the Republican Party had much the same base, while the Democratic Party's base, sometimes united but sometimes deeply divided, consisted of white Southerners and big-city Catholics. In 1944, Republican presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey carried the popular vote outside the five boroughs of New York City, Chicago's Cook County and the South (defined as the 11 formerly Confederate states plus West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma). Dewey got only 10% of his popular votes and no electoral votes in the South.

Over the next four decades the biggest partisan shift was among white Southerners, while blacks since 1964 have voted about 90% Democratic. By 1984 and 1988, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were getting about one-third of their popular and electoral votes in the South. In the presidential elections since 1988, Republican nominees have gotten 34% to 39% of their popular votes and 60% to 69% of their electoral votes in the South.

A party that attracts new support from a segment of the electorate tends to repel part of its old coalition. As the 1990s began, political pundits were opining that Republicans had a lock on the Electoral College—just before Bill Clinton, with assistance from Ross Perot, picked the lock and ripped open the door. Democrats won the popular vote in four of the five next presidential elections.

Republicans similarly embarrassed the pundits who said two decades ago that Democrats had a lock on the House of Representatives. Republicans won the most popular votes and most seats in seven of the nine congressional elections beginning in 1994.

As a result, the Republican core going into the 2012 election is no longer northern Protestants but white, married Christians. If you compare John McCain's 2008 percentages with the senior Bush's in 1988, you find Republicans suffering double-digit losses in states dominated by giant, culturally non-Southern metropolitan areas—New England, New York and down the I-95 corridor through New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and then down to Florida.

Republicans found support similarly sparse in Illinois, Michigan and (though the loss here seems temporary) Indiana, as well as in California, Nevada and Barack Obama's native Hawaii. Latino immigrants have added Democratic votes in most of these places, and out-migrating, native-born Americans have subtracted Republican votes.

But when you look at this map you also see areas where Mr. McCain ran even with or better than George H.W. Bush, notably the (Andrew) Jacksonian belt settled by Scots-Irish in the 18th and 19th centuries, running southwest from West Virginia through Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Western Pennsylvania and rural Texas, which remained solidly Democratic in the 1980s, have become solidly Republican.

At the 1984 Republican National Convention, country singer Lee Greenwood wowed the delegates by singing his hit at the time, "God Bless the U.S.A." He's scheduled to be in Tampa again, singing to a GOP gathering much more attuned to country music than the Republican party of yore.

In the days of Franklin Roosevelt, the white working class, increasing numbers of them union members, became one of the core groups of the Democratic Party. This group—the people defined by exit polls as noncollege whites—has been declining as a percentage of the electorate, but in the process it has become an important part of the Republican core.

Noncollege whites provided exactly half the votes cast for John McCain. Barack Obama carried this group in only 15 states with 124 electoral votes, and noncollege whites were more Republican than college whites in all but eight states, including some with union traditions (Michigan, Indiana, Illinois) and others where both groups are overwhelmingly Republican (Texas, Oklahoma, Utah).

There is a considerable overlap between noncollege whites and white evangelical Protestants—they supplied 42% of Mr. McCain's votes in 2008. If conservative stands on cultural issues have repelled affluent suburbanites, particularly unmarried women, they have attracted support from other quarters.

Yet Republicans assembling sooner or later in storm-tossed Tampa should keep in mind that in 2008, as in 1944, their party was in the minority and that they need to add votes from other groups to win. White noncollege voters and white evangelical Christians were only 42% and 37%, respectively, of the winning Republican coalition in the 2010 congressional elections.

Recent polling suggests that affluent suburbanite Mitt Romney is making gains among groups where the party has been losing votes, and if he is elected he will need to govern in a way that holds this larger party together. But that is the challenge the Republican Party has always faced, and over its 158 years it has won more presidential elections than it has lost.

Mr. Barone is senior political analyst at the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of "The Almanac of American Politics," published by National Journal

A version of this article appeared August 27, 2012, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Evolution of the Republican Party Voter.

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