Expert Commentary

Election Beat 2020: Blue wave? Red dawn? What’s the future of the Republican Party?

In the last of his Election Beat 2020 columns, Thomas E. Patterson argues that the Republican Party is in trouble.

The Noun Project

Democrats’ hoped-for election was anything but a blue wave. They dropped seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, appear unlikely to capture the Senate and lost ground in state legislative races. Aside from narrowly toppling a president whose monumental posturing and blundering would have made him easy pickings earlier in our history, Democrats have plenty of reasons for concern.

Nevertheless, the Republicans are the ones who are truly in trouble. They’re losing their grip on the future, more slowly but no less surely than the last time they were sent to the woodshed. It was the 1930s. Republicans were in office when the Great Depression struck, and they took the blame. They lost the next three presidential elections by wide margins. But it was a related development during the period that ruined the GOP‘s long-term prospects. First-time voters backed the Democratic Party by nearly 2-to-1 and stayed loyal to it. Election after election until the late 1960s, their votes carried the Democrats to victory.

Only once since then have young voters sided heavily with one party in a series of presidential elections. Voters under 30 have backed the Democratic nominee by a wide margin during each of the past five contests. This year, the margin approached 2-to-1. Collectively, these voters now include everyone between the ages of 18 and 46 — more than 40% of the electorate. And the blue migration shows no sign of waning. Today’s teenagers in the U.S. are the most racially and ethnically diverse ever and lean strongly Democratic.

The GOP is aging out. There’s an advantage to having older voters on your side — they vote more heavily than younger ones. The disadvantage is that they don’t stick around forever.

The GOP also depends heavily on white America. White voters furnish nearly 9 out of 10 Republican votes. But it’s the same problem here. White people vote at a higher rate than do minorities but are a declining proportion of the electorate. They were 87% of the voters in 1992. The number was 67% in 2020 and will continue to drop.

The GOP is paying a stiff price for defaming recent immigrants. Republicans are congratulating themselves on their inroads this year with Latino voters. Inroads? A gain of a couple percentage points isn’t a whole lot to brag about in an election where 2 out of 3 Latinos voted for President-elect Joe Biden. A 2019 poll found that 51% of Latinos believe that the GOP is “hostile” toward them, with an additional 29% believing that the GOP “doesn’t care” about them.

Asian Americans have also turned away from the GOP. They are America’s fastest-growing ethnic group and have the profile of a Republican bloc. They have the nation’s highest average family income and are twice as likely as other Americans to own a small business. As late as the 1992 presidential campaign, they voted 2-to-1 Republican. In 2020, they split nearly 2-to-1 Democratic.

Without the votes of white evangelical Protestants, the GOP would already be a second-rate party. Eliminate the evangelical vote in the 2020 election and President Donald Trump would have received less than 40% of the popular vote. Even the GOP’s standing as a “white” party owes to evangelicals. Non-evangelical whites voted Democratic by a 54%-46% margin in 2020. Moreover, white evangelicals’ ability to prop up the GOP is declining. America’s fifth wave of religious revival began to wane two decades ago. White evangelicals now constitute one-sixth of the population, down from one-fourth in the 1990s.

There was no gender gap until the GOP adopted evangelicals’ version of family values, including opposition to abortion. Women are now the Democrats’ largest voting bloc and their loyalty has increased, reaching record highs in the past few elections. And Republicans’ embrace of evangelicals’ position on gay rights has alienated members of the LGBTQ community. They are now second only to Black Americans in their Democratic loyalty. The GOP’s rigid stance on social issues has also eroded its standing with college-educated voters. Once heavily Republican, they sided with Biden by an estimated 12 percentage points in 2020.

In my book, Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?, I explore in detail the demographic trap that the GOP has set for itself. And that trap is but one of the GOP’s deadly traps. It has also created an ideological trap by its steady move to the right, which has distanced the party from the centrist voters who hold the balance of power in American politics. It also has a media trap — a right-wing media system that impedes the GOP’s ability to govern, to moderate its positions and to pay due respect to reality. Then, too, there is a moral trap resulting from its voter suppression efforts. Suppression lengthens the memory of the suppressed. Black voters contributed mightily to Biden’s victory and will be backing Democrats for years to come.

The Lincoln Project and other Republican moderates were hoping that a blue wave in 2020 would prompt the GOP to reinvent itself. Even if a blue wave had materialized, reinvention wasn’t in the cards. The GOP is stuck on its path, propelled there by its right-wing ideology, right-wing base, right-wing media and right-wing leadership. Republicans are either oblivious to or unpersuaded by the axiom that power in a two-party system ultimately resides in the political center. There will come a day when Republicans change direction. But like their 1930s predecessors, it will not occur until they grow weary of the sting of defeat.

Thomas E. Patterson is Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at Harvard’s Kennedy School and author of the recently published Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself? He can be contacted at This column is the last in his Election Beat 2020 series. 

Further reading:

Kim Parker, Nikki Graf and Ruth Igielnik. “Generation Z Looks A Lot Like Millennials on Key Social and Political Issues,” Pew Research Center, Jan. 17, 2019.

“National Exit Polls: How Different Groups Voted,” New York Times, November 2020.

Thomas E. Patterson. “GOP’s Media Trap,” Boston Globe, July 27, 2020.

Thomas E. Patterson. Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?, 2020.

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