As college students, and as small-“d” democrats, we are thrilled that young voters turned out last week to cast their ballots at the same high rate as in 2008. After a sharp decline in the 2010 midterms, about half of all voters between the ages of 18-29 participated in the election. What’s more, young people made up a higher percentage of the electorate in 2012 than in 2008, coming in at about 19 percent. The high level of youth turnout in 2008 could have been a one-time fluke—and many thought it was. Yet, to see it repeated suggests that we are perhaps entering an era when the youth vote makes up a significantly higher portion of the electorate than in the past—closer to 20 percent than the traditional 15.
This is all good news to us, as it should be good news to anybody who wants a participatory democracy. Yet sadly, this and other trends in high voter turnout are bad news for Republicans, and that’s just their problem. No party can establish for itself a viable future if that future hinges on low turnout among young people and minorities. It is not only morally wrong, but also futile. Perhaps due to social media, or some other lurking variable, it looks like higher youth turnout is here to stay. Also, the African-American share of the electorate has so far remained at its high post-2008 level, and the Hispanic share is growing. For the sake of two-party democracy, Republicans must reform to broaden their appeal.
One of the great puzzles of this election season was why Republican pundits and pollsters were so wrong. Some predicted a Romney landslide, while others conceded a narrow electoral victory for Obama. In fact, it was an Obama electoral landslide, which more than a few nonpartisans saw coming. The reason for the mistake, as identified by right-leaning pollster Rasmussen Reports, was that “we expected [the minority share of the electorate] to remain relatively constant. However [it increased].” In short, Republicans not only wanted a return to the pre-2008 electorate, but they also deluded themselves into seeing it on the horizon.
But by now it is clear that such a return will not come. With Democrats now taking over 90 percent of the black vote, over 70 percent of the Hispanic vote, and over 60 percent of the youth vote—and with each group’s share of the electorate growing—Republicans have no choice but to broaden their appeal. We hope this appeal comes through the kind of thoughtful internal deliberation and triangulation that led to Bill Clinton’s moderate 1992 candidacy as opposed to the sort of insulting pandering that brought us vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin (as a ploy to win female voters) and former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele (as a ploy to dent Democrats’ hold over the black vote). This may mean that Republican decision makers need to forsake the more hard-line elements of their party to stay relevant to the American center. It can be done, and Democrats have had to do it in the past. Now it is time for the Grand Old Party to take a crack at it.