Rand Paul speaks at at New Hampshire town hall

Senator Rand Paul speaks at a town hall in New Hampshire. Last month the Kentucky Republican visited Howard University, a historically black college, in an effort to reach out to the African American community. Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia

The U.S. Census Bureau just released its report on voter turnout in America’s 2012 presidential elections. For the first time, the percentage of eligible blacks who voted surpassed that of eligible whites. Meanwhile, explosive growth in the country’s Asian and Hispanic populations continues to mean that those who go to the polls are increasingly nonwhite.

The turnout story is not just about Barack Obama running for president. In 1996, when the government began to collect this kind of data,  whites outvoted blacks by eight percentage points. Black turnout has increased in every election since then.

The turnout rates for Hispanics and Asians — both just shy of 50 percent — continue to lag far behind the other two groups, with much smaller gains over the years. And yet their share of the voting public almost doubled over that same span of sixteen years, even as the white share of voters dropped nine percentage points, to 74 percent.

Furthermore, partisanship is becoming more racial and regional. In the last four elections, Republicans have tended to get just under three-fifths of the white vote, while Democrats have consistently drawn about nine-tenths of the black vote (only slightly higher with Obama on the ballot). Meanwhile, Hispanic and Asian voters have moved significantly toward Democrats. Between 2004 and 2012, the Asian Democratic vote jumped 17 points, to 73 percent, while the Hispanic Democratic vote jumped 18 points, to 71 percent. Across that same period of time, the white vote for Democrats was lower in the South than any other region, and lowest in the deepest Southern states (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama). 

It does not bode well for the GOP that its voters were almost 90 percent white in 2012.  If America’s minority voters continue to turn out for Democrats, and their share of the population continues to grow as rapidly as projected, it will become ever harder for Republicans to win the White House.

I am a progressive, but I don’t celebrate these trends. For the sake of this country’s multiethnic democracy, I want Republicans to do better among nonwhite voters. A society where ethnicity defines the political parties is doomed to disaster. The political process becomes a zero-sum game where each ethnic group fights for its share of the pie. Any commitment to a broader common good is lost, as is any sense that citizens of different backgrounds can come together and feel a strong patriotic bond.

My hope is that the GOP’s leaders read these numbers and adopt both a tone and policy stances that unite rather than divide. Too many on the right — from Rush Limbaugh to Mitt Romney to Sarah Palin — have sought to gin up white anxiety over demographic changes, to motivate white voters by fear.

Giving up this losing strategy is the best way to win over the growing ranks of minority voters. We’ll see in the coming months whether that happens. The impending vote over immigration reform will be a crucial test. But for the health of their party — and the health of our country — Republicans need to change.

Ian Reifowitz is the author of Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity. Twitter: @IanReifowitz

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