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Republican strategy after gutting the VRA

by Eric Ferguson on July 6, 2013 · 2 comments

elephantAfter writing a bunch of posts on Democratic electoral strategy and why progress has been made on some issues but not others, I started wondering if I could do that the other way around. I started wondering if the punditry on what Republicans should do next might be shallow or blinkered enough that a bit of deep thought might find what they’re missing. I don’t want to help Republicans solve their strategic problems, but if we can see their options, maybe we can get in the way a bit. Who knows, with some effort and smarts, maybe we can box them in where we’d prefer that they go.


And then, before thoughts turned into words, the Shelby County decision gutted section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, effectively ending pre-clearance. Well, that changes everything.


Wait. No, it doesn’t.


The Republicans’ options haven’t changed at all. Only their incentives have changed. The Shelby decision has made voter suppression much more tempting, but it was always an option. Ironically though, pursuing it might take away other options.


Essentially, any political party has three options:

  • Get more of your supporters to vote
  • Win over voters who aren’t supporting you
  • Stop opponents from voting

Democrats generally object to voter suppression on principle, but Republicans have shown few such compunctions. They definitely consider all three options, and that last one has been made more tempting by the US Supreme Court. Discrimination in voting is still illegal, but without pre-clearance, Republicans can impose discriminatory laws and get some elections out of them before their laws might be overturned. Also, without the ability of the Justice Department to block discriminatory laws, opponents will have to resort to the court system, where conservative judges might uphold the laws. If they don’t, there’s the conservative majority in the Supreme Court which has been friendly to voter suppression. The short version: voter suppression is more likely to pay off now.


There’s a theory that the reason blacks voted at a higher rate than whites for the first time ever in 2012 was they responded to Republican efforts to suppress their votes. Other racial minorities might have been added to the blowback. I don’t know how to prove it. It seems plausible. It would seem the Republicans risk blowback from black voters and Democratic-leaning demographic groups (DLDGs) in general. However, a stronger individual incentive to vote won’t help when targeted groups lack acceptable photo ID, when voters just can’t vote on Tuesday and early voting is stopped, or when voters can’t wait in line several hours to vote.  The Republicans are betting that the anger caused by suppression efforts won’t matter if suppression efforts work.


The risk, which Republicans seem not to see, really isn’t short-term. It’s long-term. The voters they suppress this election might remember and hold a grudge for decades to come, during which time they might have jumped through all the hoops to get an acceptable photo ID,  found a job with working hours that let them get to the polls on election day, or they voted with their feet to live in a place where voting rights are respected but Republicans, not so much.


Fortunately we don’t have to engage in large amounts of speculation on which options Republicans will choose because their immediate actions after Shelby made that clear. Texas took just two hours to impose photo ID and a new redistricting plan that was blocked for being racially discriminatory. North Carolina has already passed a slew of voter restrictions. Photo ID seems to be generally the favorite restriction of states formerly subject to pre-clearance, ironically proving why pre-clearance is necessary.


Even before Republicans jumped on the voter suppression bandwagon, my first thought when I heard the decision was that Republicans have handed us non-whites for at least another generation.  Though again, only the Republicans’ incentives have changed, not their options. They could still try to reach out to DLDGs, and the faction of Republicans trying to reach out to Hispanics from a realization they’re doing worse and worse with a demographic group that’s getting bigger and bigger haven’t given up. They’re right that if immigration reform passes with a path to citizenship for immigrants who came without documents, then Democrats don’t get to use the issue. Other than immigration though, outreach has gone nowhere. Doesn’t mean some won’t keep trying, and maybe they’ll succeed. I wouldn’t bet on their success, not with a message that essentially says, “please vote for us, but only if you have the photo ID which we just started requiring and which we’re doing our best to prevent you from getting”.


In other words, even though I said one of the reason Democrats need to win over more white voters is just in case Republicans win over more DLDGs, I’m having an awful time seeing  that happening now. Some are trying, but they’re being completely undercut by the vote suppressors. That leaves the GOP with just one option besides suppressing Democratic votes, and that’s getting more Republican votes or, to put it in demographic rather than partisan terms, they need to turn out more white male middle-aged/elderly non-urban Christians. The more Democrats can eat into that demographic, the more we leave the GOP with no place to go. The more we win over everybody who doesn’t fit multi-adjective demographic, the more dependent on that demographic Republicans become, and it isn’t big enough to win all that much.


Before we get cocky though, if we don’t pick off or isolate the GOP’s one strong demographic, then a combination of suppressing DLDGs and improving white turnout looks like it could work. I suggested in that linked post that if they don’t get better at reaching out to DLDGs and we succeed at reaching out to white voters, then Republicans have no other option but to get much better at voter suppression — and they just did, with the gift the conservative majority on the Supreme Court just gave them.  I don’t know if Republicans know how to increase white turnout, but it looks pretty sure they’re going to try.


In fact, the biggest advantage we may have is we know what they’re going to do now that they’ve limited themselves to two options. They don’t know what we’re going to do, other than correctly assuming we’re going to play defense on voting rights. Will we suppress Republican votes? Of course not, but they’re not going to believe that, so if we can get them busy trying to figure out how we’re going to suppress their voters, fine. We might focus on winning more districts (which is actually most of the point of Democrats trying to win more whites), trying to pick off voters they think should be theirs. We might crank up our outreach efforts to those DLDGs who turn out poorly, since sometimes we’re winning high percentages of a low turnout. We might try to win those remaining DLDGs who vote Republican. Getting 71% of the Hispanic vote means we’re not getting 29%. That’s still many voters for us to go after. We’re losing similar percentages of young voters, Asians, and so on, so plenty of votes there. We might focus our efforts on swing districts, or we might try to think long-term and work on finding support in red districts.


So we have several choices, while the Republicans have built much of the box we hope to put them in. Much as we hate the policies, maybe we should thank the Republicans politically for alienating women with their obsessive efforts to control reproduction coupled with an insistence on saying stupid things about rape, for alienating non-whites by jumping all over the opportunities presented by the Shelby County decision, for alienating LGBT with their dogged defense of discrimination, for alienating non-Christians by trying to impose Christianity (has anyone told them the Christian majority is shrinking?), for alienating urbanites and suburbanites with that “real America” rhetoric, and for alienating young voters by making voting hard and college expensive. Actually, young voters tend to react badly to all of the above.


By seeming to do their damnedest to alienate everybody who isn’t already voting for them, they have to suppress our voters while increasing turnout of theirs. We know what they’re going to do, while we can hit them from multiple directions.


I’d rather have our problems than theirs.


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