There has been much chatter about who now speaks for the Republican Party, and whether the GOP has a message or an agenda to combat President Barack Obama's popularity. Those questions are important to the party's future, but the most serious problem remains the deeper demographic and political forces at work in the country.
For the past few months, political analysts and demographers have been poring over the results of the 2008 election and comparing them with presidential results from the past two decades. From whatever angle of their approach - age, race, economic status, geography - they have come to a remarkably similar conclusion. Almost all indicators are pressing the Republicans into minority status.
Republicans are still capable of winning individual elections, but until they find a way to reverse, or at least minimize, these broader changes in the country, their chances of returning to majority status will be severely reduced.
The American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution convened a stellar cast Friday to review what has been learned since November. The panel included Robert Lang of Virginia Tech; Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress; William Frey of the Brookings Institution; Bill Bishop, a Texas writer and author of "The Big Sort"; Scott Keeter of the Pew Research Center; and Ronald Brownstein of Atlantic Media. They presented a wealth of data about what happened in 2008 and offered conclusions that would alarm any Republican hopeful of a quick turnaround in the party's fortunes.
Democrats have won the popular vote in four of the past five elections, though in one of those (2000) they did not end up in the White House. In years in which they have also won the electoral vote, Democrats have racked up sizable margins. Obama bested John McCain by 365 to 173, and Bill Clinton's two victories were in the same range. George W. Bush's two electoral-college victories were narrow; he won 271 votes in the disputed election of 2000 and 286 in his 2004 reelection.
What has brought this about? It's not just one thing - it's everything. Start with the Democrats' success in the suburbs. Lang's formula is that demography and density have combined to help Democrats: They dominate not just the cities but also the urbanized suburbs that contain the largest share of the suburban population in America.
Democratic strength in the counties around Philadelphia, around Detroit and in Northern Virginia have squeezed Republicans dramatically. Increasingly, Republican strength outside the urban areas counts for less. "There's just not enough rural folks and small-city people left in America in the key states that determine the electoral college to offset that difference," Lang said. "You're out of people."
That's one geographical reality. The other, which became acute in 2008, is that outside the South, Republicans are in trouble. McCain won the South in November, but Obama swept the rest of the country by an even bigger margin. The same pattern holds now for House and Senate seats. Republicans may continue to win governorships in Democratic-leaning states, but in congressional and presidential elections the geographic divides are sizable.
Brownstein reeled off a list of statistics that all arrived at the same place: The South now accounts for a greater share of Republican strength than at virtually any time since the party's founding. That base is too narrow, as even Republicans know.
Demographically, the forces at work have chipped away at what was once a GOP-leaning majority in the country. The most important is minorities' rising share of the vote. Whites accounted for 76 percent of the overall electorate last November, down from 85 percent in 1988.
In the last election, there were more than 2 million additional African American voters, about 2 million more Hispanic voters and about a million more Asian American voters. All are groups in which Obama increased the Democratic share of the vote over 2004. Frey estimated that minority voters in nine states made the difference in Obama's victory margin.
Republicans can't reverse the demographic trends; their only solution is to increase their share of the minority vote. Opposing Judge Sonia Sotomayor, Obama's Supreme Court nominee, because of her pride in being a Latina won't help solve that problem.
There was much attention paid to Obama's trouble winning the votes of white working-class voters. The bad news for Republicans is that these voters represent a declining share of the electorate.
Since 1988, that group's proportion of the national electorate has dropped by 15 percentage points. In Pennsylvania, Teixeira reported, it has declined by 25 percentage points. Teixeira reported that Obama actually won the votes of working-class whites age 25 to 29; at this point, they appear more culturally liberal than their elders.
As the working-class vote shrinks, the college-educated vote increases, and Democrats are gaining a greater share of these voters. Democrats lost white college graduates by 20 percentage points in 1988 but by four points last November. That is another big reason they have gained strength in the suburbs.
Obama's strength among young voters was a staple of coverage throughout his bid for the White House, although as Keeter pointed out, he could have won in November without the votes of anyone younger than 30. But his margin was the biggest in several decades, and that alone should worry Republicans.
Obama may appeal to younger voters, but their shift toward the Democrats predates his candidacy. "This really is not Obama," Keeter said. "Young voters were John Kerry's best age group. They were the Democratic candidates' best age group in the 2006 elections, and they were the best age group for other Democratic candidates in 2008."
Younger voters are more diverse demographically than older voters. In 2008, 62 percent were white, compared with 74 percent eight years earlier. Projections show young voters will become increasingly diverse. They are also less religious and more culturally liberal, two indicators of Democratic support.
GOP strategist Mike Murphy described this in Time magazine as a coming Republican ice age. Republicans will need a major shift to begin to reverse these trends. That could start if there is a backlash against Obama's governance - and the president's agenda certainly will test the country's tolerance for a big dose of government. But Republicans will need to retool in other ways to make themselves more appealing to a changing population. That debate has barely begun.