For some time I have been thinking about the growing fault lines in the Republican coalition, and two stories from Monday’s New York Times and Washington Post illustrate these fissures. The Times headline over a front-page piece by Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin read, “Passion of Gun Protests Testing G.O.P’s Hold on Swing Suburbs.” A Michael Scherer article fronting the Post was headlined, “A Republican turnabout on school spending,” with a subhead, “GOP governors respond to a backlash after years of tight budgets and a focus on tax cuts.”
Not that long ago, the stereotype of the GOP was that of a country club party—clearly an oversimplification, but grounded in the reality that the strength of the GOP then was among middle- to upper-class and suburban voters. Democrats were strong with minorities and the New Deal coalition—or working-class whites. Explaining his loss in the 1987 Iowa Republican straw poll, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush famously told an interviewer that “a lot of the people that support me, they were off at the air show [in Cedar Rapids], they were at their daughters’ coming-out parties, or teeing up at the golf course for that all-important last round, or turning up at their high school reunions.”
We are now undergoing a period of transition for both parties, but it is more immediately pressing for the GOP, the party with the levers of power on both the federal and state levels—a lot to lose. A recent Pew Research Center analysis of over 10,000 interviews with registered voters over the course of last year found that 37 percent identify as independents, 33 percent are Democrats, and 26 percent are Republicans.
Keep in mind that generally 90 percent or more of people who identify with a party usually vote that way, and among those who initially claim to be independent but concede they lean toward one party, the number is usually upwards of 80 percent. The proportion of true independents, with no partisan leanings, is in single digits. Shifting patterns in party identification combined with developments over the last year or so threaten to fundamentally change the chemistry of American politics.
The Pew report observed that ,“For decades, women have been more likely than men to identify as Democrats or lean Democratic. But today, a 56% majority of women identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, while 37% affiliate with or lean toward the GOP. The share of women identifying as Democrats or leaning Democratic is up 4 percentage points since 2015 and is at one of its highest points since 1992.” For Republicans, this lost ground among women has not been offset by a corresponding increase among men; the study found that 48 percent of men identify with the Republican Party or lean Republican, while 44 percent are Democrats or lean Democratic—all about the same as in 2014.
Then there is education. Those with just a high school diploma or less identify with or lean toward Republicans by 2 points, 47 to 45 percent, while those with some college but no degree tip toward Democrats by 2 points, 47 to 45 percent as well. But among those with a four-year college degree but no graduate school, Democrats have a 15-point lead, 54 to 39 percent. For those with postgraduate experience as well, the Democratic advantage expands to 32 points, 63 to 31 percent.
Among white voters with a high school diploma or less, the two parties were fairly evenly split until the beginning of this decade. Then the Republican share soared to a 23-point advantage, 58 to 35 percent. Republicans used to have a big lead among whites with just four-year college degrees, but the gap began narrowing during those Obama years and crossed last year: Democrats now have a 3-point edge, 49 to 46 percent. Among whites with postgraduate experience, Democrats began pulling away early in the last decade and now have a 22-point advantage.
The Pew findings on party identification in urban, suburban, and rural counties are instructive. The Pew report noted that, “Voters in urban counties have long aligned more with the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, and this Democratic advantage has grown over time. Today, twice as many urban voters identify as Democrats or lean Democratic (62%) as affiliate with the GOP or lean Republican.”
Meanwhile there has been a corresponding trend in favor of Republicans in rural counties, as the report notes: “From 1999 to 2009, rural voters were about equally divided in their partisan leanings. Today, there is a 16-percentage-point advantage for the GOP among rural voters.” Republicans are on the upswing with a group that is a declining share of the electorate.
The suburbs in between have long been the battleground, and they are pretty evenly split, with 47 percent identifying with or leaning toward the Democratic Party and 45 percent identifying with or leaning to the Republican Party—pretty much the same as it has been for two decades, Pew found.
The question is whether the current issue agenda and news developments will upend that delicate partisan balance in the suburbs. Are GOP positions threatening to drive a wedge between small-town and rural America on one side and suburban America on the other? Or on a different axis, is there a second wedge between whites without a college degree and those with at least a four-year degree?
All of this is happening against a backdrop of widening generational differences that is, to say the least, ominous for Republicans. GOP strength persists among those in the Silent Generation, those born between 1928 and 1945, 52 percent of whom identify with or lean toward the GOP—a larger share than a decade ago, Pew notes. The jump-ball group is the baby boomers, born 1946 to 1964, among whom Democrats have a narrow, 48 to 46 percent edge. The Democratic advantage is a bit wider, 5 points, among the Generation X cohort, born 1965-1980, at 48 to 43 percent. But it is the millennial generation that should terrify Republicans: Those born between 1981 and 1996 identified with or leaned toward Democrats by a 27-point margin, 59 to 32 percent. This last group is nothing less than an existential threat to the Republican Party, as the millennials are only going to increase as a proportion of the electorate.
Will the events of the last year and, for that matter, this past weekend, along with demographic trends, alter that partisan equilibrium in the suburbs? Just as in the overall Senate outlook for this year, rural states with older and fewer people buy Republicans considerably more time. But suburbia may well decide the course of American politics for the long term.