Matt Lewis

Will the GOP have to choose between downscale whites and cosmopolitan conservatives?

Will the GOP have to choose between working-class whites — and upscale whites and Hispanics?

That’s what RCP’s Sean Trende is predicting. In a thought-provoking column, he points out the “most salient demographic change from 2008 to 2012 was the drop in white voters.” As he notes, the missing voters “were largely downscale, Northern, rural whites.” This, of course, was a predictable reaction to pitting Mitt Romney against Barack Obama.

Trende concedes these missing voters “were not enough to cost Romney the election, standing alone,” but ultimately concludes that the GOP faces a tough choice between going after downscale whites — or going in what I would call a more “cosmopolitan conservative” direction.

Forced into a binary choice, I would opt for the latter. To be sure, in the short-term, it would be easier to get these Ross Perot voters back on board than it would be to attract new voters. And there clearly is an under-served niche of working-class white voters who could be persuaded to vote for a more populist Republican party. But as demographics change and urbanization continues, this would be tantamount to rolling out a new brand to serve a declining audience. It would be like launching a dead tree newspaper today. Why would you want to do that?

The good news is that I think Trende is wrong to insist the two groups are mutually exclusive. He concedes that Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush were able to “thread the needle,” but then adds that “[t]hese politicians are rarities…”

But if we’re talking about modern Republican presidents, Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush are the rule, not the exception.

In this regard, Mitt Romney was the anomaly. He was a candidate uniquely unsuited to attract working-class white voters. This is not to say we shouldn’t be aware of this challenge. Clearly this dichotomy will have to be handled very carefully. And it certainly is possible that the political parties could reorder in the future. But I suspect it’s entirely possible for more appealing conservative candidates to bridge this gap in the near future. I’m more optimistic about the Republican bench.

UPDATE: See Charlie Cook’s post, “Republicans Face a Choice: Expand or Expire.”