Republicans: The Future of Our Party is in Jeopardy

In the last eight presidential elections, the nominee from the Republican Party won a majority of the popular vote only twice: Once in 1988 and once in 2004. Other than those two instances, less people voted for the Republican nominee than the Democratic one in every presidential election. A look at some exit polls from the 2016 presidential election is helpful in exploring why this trend exists.

In 2016, urban voters broke 60 percent to 34 percent in favor of Hillary Clinton. Rural voters voted in the exact opposite way, with 34 percent voting for Clinton and 61 percent for Trump. Suburban voters were more closely divided, with 45 percent voting for Clinton and 49 percent for Trump. You may be thinking: “So what’s the problem? The Democrats may win urban voters, but we won rural voters by the exact same margin, plus suburban voters!” The problem is this: there are twice as many urban voters as rural ones. In 2016, 34 percent of voters were urban, and only 17 percent were rural; so while Republicans have a slight advantage in the fight for the suburban vote (49 percent of the electorate), Democrats enjoy a base of support that is twice the size of the Republicans’. 

It is easy to get lost in all of these numbers, but they all help answer the central question for Republicans: in a future where America is more urban, can the Republican Party survive?

If current trends continue, my answer is no. If the results of Congressional races since President Trump’s victory in 2016 are demonstrative of a budding trend, support for Republicans in the suburbs is ebbing. This explains why in 2018, Beto O’Rourke came within three points of Tea-Party favorite Ted Cruz in Texas, Republican challenger Corey Stewart did not even come within fifteen points of Democratic Senator Tim Kaine in Virginia, and the progressive Kirsten Sinema defeated Republican Martha McSally by almost two and a half points in Arizona. Texas and Arizona were once Republican strongholds, and Republicans were competitive in Virginia not that long ago.

Fortunately, there are plenty of people offering solutions to this problem. There are those who tell you that the only way for the Republican Party to ensure its future existence is to moderate. Others claim that the future is libertarian. Still others argue that the Republican Party should double down on the populist, quesi-New Deal coalition that President Trump managed to cobble together in 2016, targeting working class white voters in midwestern states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. 

I think there is merit to all of these strategies, but it is my view that single issue, “silver bullet” solutions should never be counted on. To this chorus of advice, however, I would add one additional suggestion: Republicans need to become more competitive in cities. Of the 50 largest cities in America, only 14 have a Republican mayor. There are either four or five state capitals with Repubican mayors (believe it or not, it is actually difficult to figure this out): Montgomery, Alabama; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Pierre, South Dakota; Cheyenne, Wyoming; and (maybe) Jefferson City, Missouri. Washington D.C. has never had a Republican mayor.

To be sure, it is likely baked into the cake that conservatives will always be at a disadvantage when trying to court urban voters. American conservatives, broadly speaking, are primarily interested in expanding individual liberties and limiting the size of government and the scope of its power. These are important political ideals, and indeed they are ideals that I share, but it is not surprising that people who live in cities are skeptical of them. Indeed, it takes more government involvement for 8.5 million people to live together than it does for 18.5 thousand people to do so.

This structural disadvantage notwithstanding, Republicans need to develop a conservative political program that could govern a city. When unaffiliated voters in major American cities think of the GOP today, they likely think of building border walls, protecting access to guns and opposing abortion. These are all perfectly reasonable positions to hold, but they would hardly fix the problems in Chicago, Seattle, or Los Angeles if implemented. The Republican Party will become a bigger player in city politics when urban voters associate the GOP with making city streets safe at night, cleaning up corruption, making government services more efficient and cost effective, and creating a healthy business environment to attract new companies and make entrepreneurship easier.

Urban voters should think of Republicans as people helping to create a clean and safe space for families, young professionals, recent immigrants, and city natives. That is a message to run on. A Republican Party which has something to say to urban voters will become a force to be reckoned with in the future; a Republican Party whose only base of support is rural voters will surely go the way of the Whigs.

Joseph PerrottaComment