Parties Need More, Not Fewer Voters, To Thrive

The most underreported political story right now is that conservative, African-American West Point graduate and businessman John James on Tuesday defeated a high-spender opponent in the Republican primary for one of Michigan’s US Senate seats. In November, Mr. James will face incumbent Democrat Senator Debbie Stabenow who, in his words, “better get ready for the fight of her political life."

If 2004 is any measure, Republicans have a much better chance of staying in power in the long-term if they can increase their popularly among Black and Hispanic voters. President Bush owed his margin of victory in the popular vote to the 11 percent of African-American voters who chose to reelect him. That was 3 points higher than his previous results in 2000 and President Trump’s percentage in 2016. What changed? It is very likely that the major role of Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condolezza Rice in Bush’s Cabinet played a factor in President Bush’s important gain among Black voters. 44 percent of Hispanic-Americans chose him in that election as well, a 9 percent improvement from 2000. 

Appealing to minority voters is smart politics, but one the party seems to have forgotten. Rather than seeking more total votes, party leaders in many states since 2008 have instead found ways to win with fewer votes by passing restrictive state voter laws that specifically target people of color from voting.  It is becoming abundantly clear the practice is founded on a debunked premise of curbing voter fraud. It will also likely lead to a backlash eventually at the GOP's expense. Wouldn't the Republican Party be far better off rallying behind minority politicians for leadership and appealing rising stars like Mr. James? In fact, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and Utah Congresswoman Mia Love are already high-profile advocates for conservative ideals.

The skeptics in both parties satisfied with the current system may scoff and say “who needs more voters?” but what kind of attitude is that for a democracy? Actually, a frighteningly familiar one when it comes to electing the president. Prior to our last presidential election, NPR ran a segment, “How To Win The Presidency With 23 Percent Of The Popular Vote.” It seemed like hyperbole. Then November 8th happened. Now, a government with such a small segment of support from voters as 23 percent could become a reality in our lifetime.

In fact, we may already be well on our way: Brookings Institute recently provided a fascinating examination of scenarios in which each party might win the Electoral College in future elections without changing the tactics of 2016. None include ‘winning the most votes’ or appealing to the most number of voters nationally. In a zero-sum game strategy, Brookings identifies how each party might win by boasting support in swing states. The two groups most in demand are minority voters or white voters without a college degree (under the current map of battleground states, whites with a college degree are an irrelevance.) The conclusion is this: “The most persistent gains for Republicans come from those scenarios where they improve their appeal to noncollege-educated whites.” But wait, why not go after every voter at least in swing  states? That is because, according to Brookings, “Several scenarios assume that voting swings toward one party on the part of one demographic group could precipitate a backlash voting swing toward the other party among another group.”

This formula might be a short-term winning strategy in winner-take-all elections, but it is a bleak plan for a party’s future. Democrats and Republicans would benefit from looking away from the paradigms our presidential election system currently offers. There are time-proven lessons being given in state-wide races for governor and senator like Michigan’s right now for those willing to pay attention.

Republicans should also consider the usefulness of electing our president by national popular vote rather than by the winner-take-all method. In an NPV, Republican and Democratic candidates for president would seek out voters in every state, rather than just voters in the 10 battleground states that currently receive the lion’s share of attention. A 50 state strategy would reduce the so-called trade-offs cited by Brookings of courting minority rather than white working-class voters in the narrow handful of swing states currently in play. Both parties might be pleasantly surprised to learn that they have more to gain from courting every voter in not only Michigan, solidly blue until 2016, but also Mississippi, safely red in the current system, rather than solely appealing to one demographic in a few swing states that favored President Trump or eluded Secretary Clinton during the last presidential election.  

If a campaign strategist made the remark, “To win an election, the goal should be to win the most votes,” the response in almost every case would be, “Well, duh,”  but not so with the presidency. In no other political race is “winning with the fewest number of votes” a path of victory. It’s a great time for both parties to reform this broken system. 

Michael Matthews