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GOP's Great White Hopes--Now and Later

Like a lot of folks, I've expressed worries about the likelihood that older white voters will represent a disproportionate share of the electorate in the 2010 midterm elections, creating an unearned GOP advantage. In his latest column, Ron Brownstein meditates on that possibility, but also points out that a Republican message tailored to older white voters could come back to haunt the GOP in 2012.

In midterm elections, the electorate tends to be whiter and older than in presidential elections. ABC polling director Gary Langer has calculated that since 1992 seniors have cast 19 percent of the vote in midterm elections, compared with just 15 percent in presidential years. That difference contributed to the 1994 landslide that swept the GOP into control of both the House and Senate. Seniors had cast just 13 percent of the vote in Bill Clinton's 1992 victory, but that figure spiked to nearly 19 percent two years later, with voting by the young people who had bolstered Clinton falling off sharply....

In 2008, Obama won the votes of just 40 percent of whites over age 65 (compared with 54 percent of whites under 30). All surveys show that white seniors remain the most resistant to Obama's health care agenda and the most skeptical of him overall. In the nonpartisan Pew Research Center's most recent poll, Obama's approval rating among elderly whites stood at just 39 percent. Surveying all of these numbers, veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres says that the Republican margin among white seniors could "easily expand to 25 points" in 2010.

Brownstein also notes, however, that the general assumption of low voting in midterms by minorities is based on mixed evidence. Minority voters actually represented a higher share of the electorate in 1994 and 1998 than in the presidential years of 1992 and 1996. These voters did, however, decline slightly as a percentage of the electorate in 2002 and 2006 as compared to 2000 and 2004. Moreover, the bar is higher in 2010 given the strong minority turnout in 2008. A lot will depend on what happens between now and then, and perhaps on the extent to which Republicans are perceived as playing on white racial or cultural fears.

After 2010, though, any Republican focus on older white voters isn't likely to pay dividends:

In the 2012 presidential election, the young and minority voters central to Obama's coalition are likely to return in large numbers. The risk to the GOP is that a strong 2010 showing based on a conservative appeal to apprehensive older whites will discourage it from reconsidering whether its message is too narrow to attract those rapidly growing groups.

Even if, says Brownstein, the share of the electorate for minority voters drops from 2008's twenty-five percent to twenty percent in 2010, it's like to rise to near thirty percent in 2012. It's at that point that any Great White Hopes for the GOP could really begin to backfire.