Eric Tanenblatt: Demographics Don’t Make Destiny

Eric Tanenblatt

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

It’s not an especially rough time to be a Republican in Georgia these days. And yet in time the political dynamic may not be so rosy–that is to say, red–in the Peach State if GOP’ers fail to heed and respond to emerging demographic trends.

Republicans maintain every elected statewide office and control a super majority in both houses of the state legislature, but this stilted power structure has engendered in the party a soft willingness to ignore the state’s rapidly shifting demographics. We’ll call it the ostrich syndrome.

This head-in-the-sand syndrome is a problem not only for Georgia Republican power brokers—like the Democrats of decades-past, GOP’ers will find themselves on the outs politically if they don’t soon heed the significant growth of the state’s African-American, Asian-American, and Hispanic populations—but also for our state at large.

As the primary commerce hub for the entire southeast, Georgia, and in particular its capital city, has become a uniquely transient place, drawing to its borders intellectual capital from across the world. This human influx, an explosion of millennials and of people of color, is slowly refashioning the state’s electorate – and in ways that might strikingly reorder the state’s elected class if ignored.

I’ve witnessed it before, with the election Georgia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction a dozen years ago, and my concern is that I’ll see it yet again; only now it’s my party that stands to feel the ballot sting.

Consider the numbers: if current trends hold, Georgia could be a majority-minority state within a decade and minorities could outnumber white voters—that is, the primary animating force for Georgia Republicans at least in parts, if not all, of the state—by 2036, according to a recent 50-state electorate analysis by the center-left Center for American Progress and the center-right American Enterprise Institute. It’s true that Republican voters are whiter and older than the broader electorate. It’s also true that even today white voters no longer represent the sort of singular coalition on which the Republican party can survive.

If these demographic projections unfold as forecasted, statewide elections may become plausibly competitive. That is to say, elections may become plausibly competitive if Republicans don’t begin engaging in earnest with non-traditional GOP voters, like minorities and millennials, beginning today.

The party need not refashion itself to accomplish this and instead must simply engage as they are with these nontraditional voterswhere they are. Republicans already support issues that move and motivate communities of color and young people—like the expansion of school choice and criminal justice reform—but have done miserably in communicating them.

Georgia today remains a solidly red state, even the most hardened of Democrats will concede. It won’t turn blue tomorrow, but in the not-too-distant future it might be rendered purple. And with this new hue will come a profound threat to Republicans’ current grasp of power in the state.

My many years in campaigns and government taught me that social and political change happens very slowly, taking incremental and often unrecognized shifts over a space of some years, until it reaches a dramatic inflection point that sends you hurtling into a new and unexpected future. So too will be the case of a potential partisan reshuffling in Georgia: very slowly, and then suddenly.

Democrats may find themselves ascendant in Georgia if electoral and demographic trends hold. Now, that’s not to say Democrats will be ascendant in Georgia: data is not destiny. Georgia Republicans’ fate is not sealed – yet.

Republicans, here and elsewhere, must expand the party’s traditional coalition to include millennials and people of color, recognizing that it’s simpler to shape the future than respond to a hostile present. Their willingness to engage emerging voter pools, and on the political and social issues that animate them, is good not only for the party but for all they represent in government.

Eric Tanenblatt is a leader of the Public Policy and Regulation practice at the global law firm Dentons.  He previously served in the Administrations of President George H. W. Bush and President George W. Bush, acted as a senior advisor to the late U.S. Senator Paul Coverdell, and served as chief of staff to Governor Sonny Perdue.