In the aftermath of the 2012 election, when just about everyone assumed Mitt Romney lost because he didn’t win enough Hispanic votes, election analyst Sean Trende produced a dissenting take.
A close look at the results across the Midwest and Appalachia revealed a large population of what Trende called “missing white voters” – a mostly working-class constituency that simply declined to turn out in the Romney-Obama contest, and that a future (more populist) Republican might win.
Trende was misunderstood by certain critics as making a normative argument that the GOP should double down on being a white party. In reality, he suggested that a Republican Party with a more populist economic message might win the missing whites and more minority votes as well.
But an explicit “double down on white voters” argument has circulated for years on the margins of conservatism, and it had obvious influence over Donald Trump’s campaign strategy in 2016. His mix of economic populism and deliberate racial polarization was supposed to be demographically foredoomed – but instead, it won him precisely those regions Trende’s analysis had highlighted, and the presidency as well.
For a sense of why this happened, in defiance of so much prognostication, look at the new Pew analysis of the 2016 election, which relies on voter files to create a more accurate assessment of who actually voted. Compared to exit polls, a couple of things stand out: First, Pew has whites at 74 percent of all voters (CNN’s exit poll had them at 71 percent), and second, it has whites without a college degree, Trump’s key constituency, at 44 percent of all voters (compared to just 34 percent for CNN).
In other words, both conventional polling and conventional wisdom underestimated the potential for white turnout generally and working-class white turnout specifically – and that’s why Trump’s strategy was able to carry him to victory.
The numbers offer a cautionary tale for both emerging Democratic-majority inevitabilists and for a left whose increasing vehemence about the wickedness of “whiteness” probably encourages the white tribalism that Trump rallied and exploited.
But on the other hand, the numbers are not exactly a sweeping political vindication for Trump’s strategy, let alone of alt-right theories of what conservatism should become.
After all, though Trump outperformed pundit expectations, he did not carry a majority, and his Midwestern electoral victory was wide but dangerously shallow. And if he won many of Trende’s missing whites, he also lost other (female, educated) whites whom past Republicans had won.
These losses point to the likely limits on racial polarization as a Republican strategy. Turning out disaffected whites is more politically effective than most people imagined after 2012, but white voters are ultimately too divided to make a “white strategy” work as a foundation for a real governing majority.
Indeed, as David French writes in National Review, American politics is still defined primarily by a “great white culture war,” with competing tribes of conservative and liberal whites divided by many, many things besides their attitudes toward race.
In this landscape, even some racialized arguments are really white culture wars by proxy. A performative anti-whiteness is common among white lefties seeking a rhetorical cudgel against blue-collar Archie Bunkers and popped-collar frat bros. And some conservative-white anxiety about the browning of America reflects a fear that minority votes will put the real enemy, white liberals, into power permanently.
But when those anxieties are translated into white-identitarian rhetoric, they cost Republicans not only minority votes but white votes as well, repelling anti-racist white suburbanites even as they mobilize some share of racially resentful whites.
So even with a slower immigration rate, a slower pace of demographic change, the Republican Party would still need either some of the white voters Trump alienated or some of the minority votes he didn’t really try to win – and neither can be delivered by the white strategy alone.
Fortunately for the GOP, there is an obvious and morally superior alternative, which is to return to Trende’s original insight, recognize that Trump’s populist rhetoric as well as his race-baiting helped win the white Midwest, and instead of a white strategy pursue a populist strategy shorn of white-identity appeals. Keep the infrastructure promises and drop the birther forays; pursue E-Verify but forgo the child-separating cruelties; be tough on China but stop vilifying black athletes; embrace nationalism but stiff-arm Confederate nostalgia.
But just because this alternative is obvious doesn’t mean it’s operable. Some Republicans really welcome racial polarization; others, a larger group, are hoping to simply return to the ideological comforts of zombie-Reaganism once Trump has vanished from the scene. Meanwhile, Trump himself seems mostly content to fight from within the redoubt the white strategy built for him rather than expand it.
Which is why the surprising success of his 2016 strategy is on track to give way to something more predictable this fall: A white-as-Moby-Dick Republican Party whose very whiteness ensures that it will lose the next battle in the great white civil war.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service