11/11/2012 22:16 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 15:53 GMT

A Republican Post-Mortem: It's Demography, Stupid!

This election should have been easy for the Republicans. After sweeping to victory in the 2010 midterms, they held all the momentum. The Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case earlier that year lifted the floodgates on corporate money, allowing it to pour into Super-PACs supporting GOP candidates. No incumbent president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 had been re-elected with unemployment this high and no president had ever won re-election with economic growth this slow. Polls consistently showed that the economy mattered most to voters, and that most of them trusted Mitt Romney to fix it. Barack Obama wasn't just vulnerable, he was finished.

Yet, despite all the signs pointing to a Romney victory, Obama won decisively. Adding insult to injury, Democrats cut into the Republican majority in the House of Representatives and increased their own majority in the Senate despite having to defend more seats. How could such auspicious beginnings end with such a resounding defeat for the GOP? Put simply: demographic change.

We've been told for decades that the U.S. is experiencing a demographic transformation, but this election, more than any census report, has driven that reality home. Arguably already the world's most racially diverse nation, the country is rapidly becoming even more colourful. According to projections, the white share of the population will fall by 2.5% every four-year election cycle until 2050. As the racial and ethnic constitution of the United States continues to evolve, Republicans are on the wrong side of a demographic wave that threatens to wash away their electoral hopes for years to come.

These changes were widely overlooked in the run-up to this election. Instead, pollsters focused on gender or religion as discussions about race seemed so passé, so 2008. The gender gap was indeed large, but not for reasons most expected. Obama beat Romney among women by 12 points and Romney beat Obama among men by 8 points for a combined gender gap of 20 per cent - the largest since tracking began in 1952. However, the increase was not due to an exodus of women from the ranks of the GOP. Romney secured 44% of the female vote, which is 1% better than McCain. Instead, it came from Obama's poor showing among men (46%) which was 8% worse than in 2008.

Remember how white evangelicals who secured George W. Bush's victories in 2000 and 2004, were supposed to abandon Romney, the Mormon? Well, 69% of them chose Romney - the same share that chose Bush over Al Gore and John Kerry. Yet this time around, that spread wasn't nearly enough to overcome Obama's decided advantage with other demographic groups.

Far more pronounced a factor than religion or gender was race. Romney beat Obama among white voters by a stunning 17%. White women chose Romney, too: 56% to 42%. But Obama drew overwhelming support from African-Americans, non-white Hispanics and Asian Americans, who, together, chose Obama over Romney by a margin of more than 4:1. The exit polling data is clear. Apart from political party, no other measure explains the outcome of the election more than race and ethnicity. Not gender, not religion, not age.

Republicans still in denial might counter that Obama holds a special appeal for minorities who will not turn out as strongly for a white Democratic candidate. But that is of little consolation. For the most part, minorities lean left and non-white births now outpace white births in the U.S. These changes are occurring even faster in swing states. Take Florida, which has become a purple state as its non-Cuban Hispanic population (10% of this year's electorate) surges. Without Florida's 29 electoral votes, the GOP's presidential hopefuls don't have a prayer.

Those Republicans who have yet to move through the five stages of grief will continue asking all of the "what ifs." What if Romney were more conservative? What if he were more likeable? Or, as Romney himself asked, what if he were Mexican?

Alas, he isn't Mexican, and Republicans spent the better part of a year and no less than 20 debates vetting candidates before settling on Romney. He was their best, most electable, option. The problem wasn't Romney. The problem is the Republican agenda, which alienates the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. population. A Republican Party that appeals only to old white men will fade along with its constituency.

This is not an easy fix. Even though many Hispanic Americans share Republican values on family and religion, you cannot overcome such divisive policies as Arizona's immigration law and or voter I.D. laws just by parading minority party members like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal or Florida Senator Marco Rubio onto the national stage. The Republican Party requires a deeper transformation.

In a more diverse America, social conservatism has become a millstone around Republicans' necks. In order to make inroads with the fastest-growing segments of America's population, the Republican Party has to soften its stance on issues such as gay marriage, abortion rights, and the war on drugs -- all issues where Republicans abandon their limited-government mantra.

A word of warning to those celebrating on the left: Barack Obama is the first incumbent since Woodrow Wilson to have won re-election while seeing his share of the vote decline. This election was less a vindication for the Democrats than a repudiation of the Republicans. According to a September Gallup poll, 54 per cent of Americans think the government does too much. Americans also recognise that we must deal with entitlement spending, an issue the Democrats are unwilling to tackle and where polls show they are vulnerable. A plurality of Americans supported Paul Ryan's Medicare reforms and a small, but growing majority of Americans favour at least partial privatisation of Social Security. Those who think the Tea Party suffered a fatal blow in this election should think again. Social conservatism may be on its deathbed, but fiscal conservatism is alive and well.

For the time being, however, it's the Republicans who need to revisit the drawing board. Thanks to the growing importance of minority voters, Democrats have now won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. America is changing. If Republicans want to lead the country, they must change along with it.