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Lessons from 2012: Bush, Trump, Voter Demographics, and the Future of the GOP

How Donald Trump defied the conventional wisdom of the political mainstream to expand the Republican base.

An April 29th interview between The Dispatch’s Sarah Isgur and Stephen F. Hayes and former President George W. Bush highlighted a common misconception about the future of the conservative movement. In an effort to promote immigration reform, Bush suggested that the GOP needed to do more to broaden its appeal to non-white voters. “I know this—that if the Republican Party stands for exclusivity, you know, used to be country clubs, now evidently it’s white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, then it’s not going to win anything,” he observed.

On its face, such recommendations seem insincere: essentially, betray the policies you would normally support in order to win elections.

Others have echoed the same sentiments within the GOP. “We’ve got to get back to winning elections again, and we have to be able to have a Republican Party that appeals to a broader group of people,” Maryland Governor Larry Hogan noted last month on Meet The Press. “The Republican Party must look like the country it wants to represent,” explained former GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina a week later on Washington Post Live.

Leftist pundits have made similar observations, suggesting that the GOP’s lack of appeal to minority voters will lead to the death of the party itself. “The Republican Party is not a party of ideas or policies. It is a party of grievance—including phony grievance… The party resides within a dark, nonsensical, racist framework—and there is no sign this is a framework its leaders or its voters wish to cancel,” Mother Jones pundit David Corn wrote this past March, in an autopsy of the 2020 election. Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post argued in a February column that:

“As the portion of electorate that was White went from 71% to 67% between 2016 and 2020, Republicans were once again reminded that the diversification of the electorate is bad news for a party that relies so heavily on white grievance. … It will become increasingly difficult for Republicans to suppress enough votes to retain power. At some point, they might consider whether the search for a dwindling electorate is all that helpful for their survival.”

Interestingly, such alarmist talking points exactly mirror the GOP and mainstream media reaction to Mitt Romney’s crushing electoral defeat at the hands of Barack Obama in 2012. In the aftermath of the 2012 presidential election, the Republican National Committee (RNC) conducted a full autopsy of their defeat. The 100-page report recommended embracing more inclusive, socially liberal policies such as immigration reform to expand the voting base in future elections:

“We are not a policy committee, but among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only. We also believe that comprehensive immigration reform is consistent with Republican economic policies that promote job growth and opportunity for all. When it comes to social issues, the party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming. If we are not, we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women, who agree with us on some but not all issues … This includes flexibility for allowing candidates to run as Republicans who may break with the party on certain issues, whether economic or social.”

On its face, such recommendations seem insincere: essentially, betray the policies you would normally support in order to win elections. What’s more, the policy changes suggested in the 2012 report have failed to achieve success in subsequent elections.

In 2016, GOP front runners such as John KasichJeb Bush, and Marco Rubio embraced pro-amnesty policies to appease Latino voters, only to be handily defeated by Donald Trump. Trump meanwhile, went completely against the RNC policy recommendation and made combating illegal immigration a top priority. Trump went on to win the general election, in shocking fashion, despite controversial remarks about illegal immigrantswomen, and Muslims. Most significantly, Trump outperformed Romney with minority voters and, stunningly, built upon this success in the 2020 election, making gains with every demographic except white men.

The siren song of reforming the party platform to appeal to a more diverse voting demographic was, naturally, seductive. Yet Trump resisted this temptation, sticking to his core policies on issues such as immigration, and charted a different course instead: direct outreach to non-white voting blocs.