If you looked at how Americans have voted in national elections over the past third of a century, you might conclude that it has been a disastrous time for Republicans.
After all, of the last eight presidential elections, going back to 1992, they have won the popular vote just once. Even then, 2004, it was by a whisker, with George W. Bush getting 50.7% of the vote.
And yet of those 30 years, Republicans have spent 12 years in the White House, and have controlled the Senate half the time and the House two-thirds of the time. Their dominance of Capitol Hill — controlling the purse strings and the legislative process most of the time — has enabled them to achieve deeply held Republican goals like a series of tax cuts (though largely for corporations and the wealthy), and to stock the judiciary, from the Supreme Court on down.
Republicans will control the House again come January, all but ensuring legislative gridlock with a Democratic Senate and Democratic president for the next two years.
Read: Americans have not been this worried about layoffs since April 2020 — and they also see no immediate end to rising prices
That Republicans have managed to stay in the game and do so well is even more remarkable when you look at the big demographic trends that have moved the electorate over the last three decades.
Allow me to paint with a broad brush here, but in general terms, it’s reasonable to say that Republicans are: 1. Older. 2. White. 3. Male. 4. Rural. 5. Lesser educated. All of that runs counter to an America that is 1. Younger. 2. Multicultural. 3. Female majority. 4. Urban. 5. Better educated. Those are dynamics that have generally supported Democrats. I stress “generally.”
This is a demographic earthquake, and it will continue. For example, whites have accounted for fewer than half of all births for at least a decade, according to Census Bureau data. And whites are also falling behind not just in relative terms but absolute terms as well, given other government data showing that the number of whites dying now exceeds the number being born.
So what explains the Republican ability to defy these tectonic shifts? One big dynamic has been their strength at the state level, where Republicans have long held an advantage over Democrats.
As of last month, they held 54% of all seats in state legislatures, a 10-point advantage over Democrats. As of last month, 28 governors were Republicans as well, compared to 22 Democrats.
The net of all this is that when it comes to congressional maps, which are often redrawn after each Census, Republicans have the upper hand in making sure that the process favors them. To the victor, as the saying goes, go the spoils.
And why are Republicans strong at the state level? That’s where another dynamic comes into play: Voter turnout. In 2020, for example, 76% of Americans aged 65 to 74 voted, while 51% of the aged 18 to 21 did, according to Census data. Whites, another key pillar of the Republican base, also voted in greater percentages — 71%— than non-whites (58%), according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
These and other things have helped Republicans stay competitive in a country where the demographic tide has been moving against them for decades. It underscores this vital point: The only thing that matters is who shows up on election day.
But at some point, the numbers are likely to catch up with Republicans. When your base is dying off faster than it is being replaced, it’s only a matter of time. And who’s to say that turnout among younger voters — who traditionally have favored Democrats — won’t increase? In fact, they are one huge reason why the red wave that most political forecasters were predicting didn’t occur last week.
Some key findings by CNN data analyst Harry Enten:
House Democratic candidates won voters under 30 by 28 points.
Democrats lost every age slice of the electorate 45 years and older by at least 7 points, including a 12-point loss among senior citizens (age 65 and older).
In other words, even though younger Americans cast fewer votes in proportional terms than older Americans, the ones who did went for Democrats in droves. The reasons for this are many, and deserving of an entirely separate column.
Inflation was supposed to help Republicans this year. It didn’t. Their claim that the president is too old and feeble for the job was supposed to help them as well. It didn’t.
Perhaps voters understand that the GOP frontrunner, Donald Trump, is an old and seemingly feeble man himself.
In any case, the real wave here is the demographic wave, the one that is moving slowly but steadily against Republicans. One key question, as the 2024 presidential campaign begins, is whether they can continue to hold their own in the face of deep, secular trends that are steadily moving against them.