'16 GOP Primaries: A Preview of Demographic Disaster?

'16 GOP Primaries: A Preview of Demographic Disaster?
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Every day, America grows more racially diverse and becomes much, much younger. These trends are highly interconnected. Nearly six in ten Hispanics are Millennials or younger, as well a majority of African-Americans and a near majority of Asians. The white population is much older: 60 percent are in the Gen-X, Boomer or older generations, according to Pew Research Center.

As a Gen-Xer whose generation is increasingly crowded out by the burgeoning Millennials and younger Generation Z, I know the participation of voters much younger than me will determine future elections and political power. So what does the 2016 primary electorate say about the future?

The primary exit polls in 25 states so far are striking. These polls have been central to the 2016 narrative about "who's up and who's down" with various groups of voters, but perhaps the most important findings are their demographic snapshots of party participation.

The exits reveal the Republican Party's failure to expand its primary electorate beyond the very old (and very white, male and very conservative) GOP base. As the media and Donald Trump focus on Republican primary turnout rising sharply in many states, exit polls in those same states show that increased GOP turnout is actually driven by prototypical conservative base voters participating in greater numbers than in 2012 or 2008.

For example, in Wisconsin's primary, GOP turnout was up sharply from four years ago and exceeded votes cast for Democrats by about 100,000. However, voters under the age of 30 comprised a mere 10% of Wisconsin GOP turnout - unchanged from 2012 and only roughly half the vote share for Democrats among voters under 30 (19%).

On the Democratic side, Sen. Sanders' success among the youth vote has been a consistent part of the primary narrative. But a similar analysis of youth in GOP primaries isn't even possible. That's because Republican turnout among voters ages 17-24 has been too small to be measured in 20 of 25 state exit polls. Only the Texas and Ohio GOP state primaries had enough participation by voters age 25-29 to measure in the exits.

Similarly, non-white voters have cast so few Republican ballots that they couldn't be analyzed in 19 states, while non-white voters are represented in every Democratic primary exit poll. Geographically, fully half of this year's GOP primary vote has come in counties Mitt Romney won by at least 10 points in 2012 (very unrepresentative regions of the national election he lost by 5 million votes).

While the glaring lack of diversity among the Republican electorate is hardly surprising, it is worth remembering that the Republican National Committee prioritized increased participation among youth and non-white voters after the party's 2012 defeat.

In the aftermath of President Obama's resounding reelection, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus commissioned a surprisingly candid and clear-eyed post-mortem called the Growth & Opportunity Project (GOP - get it?). It depicted a party in long-term decline and in need of a fundamentally new approach to compete with a rapidly changing electorate.

"The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself. We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue," read the GOP's self-assessment.

Three years later, there is no evidence of GOP participation expanding beyond their base - even in states where their total turnout has increased.

The harsh tone and extreme right-wing policies at the core of the Republican primary debate have hardly been welcoming to anyone beyond the committed conservative base. And the lack of participation by voters beyond that base shows that the feeling is mutual.

The widespread lack of participation of younger voters in the Republican primaries - even for a race as wild and attention-grabbing as this one - is the most glaring demographic challenge for the party. The GOP youth problem looks especially stark when compared to Democrats' increased participation. The under 30 vote share of Democratic primaries is up from 2008 in most states, including in the battlegrounds of Florida (+6 points), North Carolina (+4), Wisconsin (+3), and Virginia (+2).

The electorate as a whole has shifted further from the GOP since its post-mortem was released in 2013. Analyses of the Census' American Community Survey data indicate that, if the 2012 election took place now, President Obama's 3.9 point national margin would be a 5.1 point margin in 2016. The same shift is seen not only in every battleground state, especially in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia, but also in Midwestern states, like Ohio and Wisconsin.

Demography isn't necessarily destiny. But the contrast between Census data revealing a dynamically changing American electorate and exit polls of a static and stagnant Republican electorate puts the Grand Old Party's big problem in stark relief.

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