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Will 2020 be the year the RNC’s ‘autopsy’ was right?

Seven years later, the GOP’s analysis of the electorate is still a must-read

ANALYSIS — At least once a year, I look back at the March 2013 Republican National Committee’s “Growth & Opportunity Project,” the party’s post-2012 “autopsy” examining why Republicans were falling behind in their battle against the Democrats.

“Falling behind?” you might ask, after seeing the GOP sweeps of 2014 and 2016 and Donald Trump’s victory. Yes. Barack Obama turned out to be a useful foil for Republicans, but the party continues to have fundamental flaws.

“Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections,” noted the report, which cited the success of GOP governors and concluded that the party’s “federal wing … is increasingly marginalizing itself.” In 2016, the number of popular-vote losses rose to six of the last seven presidential elections when Trump won the White House.

Focus groups found that the party was viewed as “scary” and “narrow-minded.” Young people, the report continued, increasingly saw the GOP “as totally intolerant of alternative points a view.”

The report, whose authors included former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, Mississippi GOP national committeeman Henry Barbour, Jeb Bush adviser Sally Bradshaw and others, also warned that unless the party successfully appealed to ethnic minorities, the playing field would tilt “even more in the Democratic direction.”


Naturally, conservatives from Michelle Malkin to Rush Limbaugh and the Tea Party Express immediately attacked the report’s recommendations and belittled the idea of compromise.

Those “Growth & Opportunity Project” warnings seem almost quaint now, with Trump in the White House. Tolerance and diversity are not exactly high priorities for this president, Republicans on Capitol Hill, or the parties’ grassroots.

The wings of the party represented by the likes of Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Louie Gohmert of Texas, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, and White House senior adviser Stephen Miller and Fox News personality Sean Hannity are very much in control, and previously thoughtful Republicans clearly are afraid to challenge party orthodoxy articulated by the president and his Fox News enforcers.

Shortly after the 2016 election, I wrote a column in The Washington Post about the autopsy, musing about whether it was simply wrong.

I concluded that the RNC report was correct about the evolution of the electorate and the long-term challenges for the GOP, but its timing obviously was amiss. Clearly, Republicans were able to squeeze out one more victory by appealing to conservative whites, and nobody could be sure that Trump couldn’t do that again in 2020, especially with an economy growing and the nation at peace.

I’m sure many conservatives still pooh-pooh the RNC report and its recommendations. They hope Trump can turn out enough whites in 2020 to score another Electoral College victory, even while again losing the popular vote (maybe this time by more than 4 million votes).

That might still work in 2020, but as a long-term strategy, it’s a loser.

Demographic disadvantage

Whites as a percentage of the electorate continue to slide, according to Roper Center data for 2000 and national exit polling in the last four presidential elections. Whites were 81 percent of the electorate in 2000, 77 percent in 2004, 74 percent in 2008, 72 percent in 2012 and 71 percent in 2016.

The white percentage of the electorate is crucial because over the past 20 years, Republican presidential nominees have won whites comfortably, while nonwhites have voted overwhelmingly Democratic.

In 2004, for example, a close presidential contest, George W. Bush won whites by 17 points (58 percent to 41 percent), while John Kerry carried blacks by 77 points, Latinos by 9 points and Asian Americans by 12 points.

In 2016, Trump won whites by 20 points (57 percent to 37 percent), while Hillary Clinton won blacks by 81 points (89 percent to 8 percent) and Latinos and Asians by 38 points each (66 percent to 28 percent and 65 percent to 27 percent, respectively).

If the white percentage of the electorate slips even a point or two — and/or Trump’s margin among whites sinks at all, a distinct possibility given his problems with whites with a college degree — he’ll need to make up the difference by increasing his performance among nonwhite voters, quite a challenge.

In January 2019, a Pew Research Center report suggested that whites will constitute 66.7 percent of eligible voters in 2020, though they are likely to account for a larger percentage of actual voters who cast ballots. That is largely because Latinos turn out at relatively low rates.

But, as a recent Pew study points out, Asian Americans are a growing problem for the GOP. While some Asian groups lean Republican (Vietnamese), others, including Chinese and Indians, strongly favor Democrats. Overall, Asian Americans clearly prefer the Democrats.

Even leaving aside COVID-19 and the subsequent shock to the U.S. economy, the president faces an uphill climb given Democratic enthusiasm and questions about his appeal to suburban voters who backed him in 2016 but defected to Democratic candidates during the 2018 midterms. (See my March 18 column rating the presidential race as leaning to Joe Biden.)

The 2013 RNC autopsy is as relevant as it was seven years ago. If anything, the party is less willing to compromise and less appealing to young Americans and voters of color.

“The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself,” then-RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said when the autopsy was released. That is still good advice today. But instead, the party has grown even more insular and less appealing to those not already committed to it.

That’s not a recipe for long-term political success as demographics change in the U.S.

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